Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote ‘A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London’ in 1854 after her sister, Arabella, asked her and Robert Browning to donate two poems to be sold at a fundraising bazaar for ragged schools. The slim pamphlet, entitled Two Poems by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, contains Barrett Browning’s poem followed by Browning’s ‘The Twins’. Between two to three hundred copies were printed, each affordably priced at sixpence.
‘A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London’ begins remarkably similar to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’: both speakers locate themselves on the continent, in Italy, ‘listening’ to news from England. Written in 1818, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ is a politically radical poem which suggests that Barrett Browning sought to associate her poem with political disruption and sharp social critique.
As in her other works, Barrett Browning draws on the imperial image of a rich, powerful and industrial England to dramatically highlight the local poverty and suffering of its inhabitants:
You have cannons on your shore,
And free parliaments in London;
Princes’ parks, and merchants’ homes,
Tents for soldiers, ships for seamen, —
Ay, but ruins worse than Rome’s,
In your pauper men and women.
After this broad condemnation of England’s poverty, the poem turns its focus to children. A series of eight stanzas solely describe the children and how they live. ‘Children’ is repeated seven times, and they appear ‘On your doorsteps’, ‘In the alleys, in the squares’, and ‘In the noisy thoroughfares’. In particular, the speaker appeals to readers who are mothers, asking,
O my sisters! children small,
Blue-eyed, wailing through the city —
Our own babes cry in them all:
Let us take them into pity.
The poems ends by suggesting that one way to relieve children’s poverty is to provide ‘a place in RAGGED SCHOOLS’ where they can receive a Christian education.
Its concern with the plight of England’s poorest children links this poem to an earlier composition, ‘The Cry of the Children’, written in 1843. Barrett Browning repeatedly returned to themes and subjects surrounding childhood and motherhood, or nurture; they are particularly prominent throughout Aurora Leigh and ‘A Runway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’.