Europe’s Seventeenth to Eighteenth Century Romantic, Victorian, and Modern eras was marked by a poverty-stricken society. Rapid industrialization gave rise to Britain, but it has brought many social and economic problems. Ireland had no universal provisions, and the poor wandered the streets begging for jobs and money. The ruling class was unsympathetic towards the suffering working class, leaving them with no hope as death was the only escape to look forward to. They were exploited as workers. Their working environments were toxic to the human body, and there was no platform for them to have mobility under the greed and corruption from Europe’s aristocracy. As a result of this, major Authors of English literature made moral obligations to take charge protesting against the government’s failure to improve the conditions of the poor as they showed readers the negative impact of industrialization through their literary works. One might argue that Death, the immobility of the working class, and the government’s blind eye towards the poor were the common themes expressed in literary works from various European authors such as The Cry of the Children by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Chimney sweeper by William Blake, and A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. This paper will explore how the themes mentioned earlier highlight the injustices and brutality suffered by the disenfranchised and struggling working class as told by the finest authors in English literature.
Some adhere to the theory that Elizabeth Browning’s The Cry of the Children was a politically correct response to the cruel working conditions of child labor in Britain. Browning placed her audience into the eyes and emotions of factory children where their innocence was betrayed by the selfishness of political and economic interests solely concerned with making profit. In Browing’s poem, she tells us that the children sold to labor are crying while those in economic and political power are enjoying their lives from the breaking backs of the youth, “But the young, young children, O, my brothers, They are weeping bitterly! They are weeping in the playtime of the others, in the country of the free (Browning, 9-12).” The speaker’s intention is to place the adult in the shoes of the children in which they’re crying for the lack of having a regular childhood and instead they’re working in factories while the grown-ups are able to enjoy their adulthood profiting off of child labor. Browning wants the reader to think closely about what if the tables were turned on them in which they had to suffer just like the children did. Line 37 expresses the true feelings of discontent deeply rooted in the poem, “True,” say the children, “it may happen that we die before our time (Browning, 37-38), represents the untimely death of children because they’re working in poor environmental conditions at a very young age. The poem then follows up with “Little Alice died last year, her grave is shapen like a snowball, in the rime. We looked into the pit prepared to take her: Was no room for any work in the close clay! From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her, Crying, ‘Get up, little Alice! It is day (Browning, 39-44).” This excerpt from the poem talks about how hazardous it is for the children to work in contaminated environments. Meanwhile, they should be playing in the fields having a good time during their years of childhood. Browning executes a shocking revelation that children are not playing kid games where they’re able to cherish their youth. They’re forced to bend their backs in factories without any playtime which makes them miserable. After they die, they don’t have burials. If they fall sick, there are no medications to cure them. They are just immobile of purpose and waiting for their deaths because there is no hope for them. Browning’s intention was to convey to the readers that children should be treated as such. They are these roots that need the experience to grow and be cared for by their parents. Children shouldn’t be pushed away by their parents to work in mines and factories. The speaker reminds us about what the youth suffers using imagery to make us visualize the grief these labored children endure, “With your ear down, little Alice never cries; could we see her face, be sure we should not know her, for the smile has time for growing in her eyes (Browning, 46-48).” The poetess is stressing that Alice’s death is one of many children dying from poor conditions of the factories and mines. When the children die their death turns out to be the escape from slave labor. This is a morbid but effective way of looking at the issue where their lives are so immobile that it almost seems as if they are living as dead people. It is not only ‘til they’re actually dead that they can finally be freed from working as slaves.
Browning believed that the dead won’t stay buried, but remembered for their strife as a community. This is probably one of Browning’s biggest reasons for writing this poem. Her written work reflects on Irish culture paying their respects for the dead. In Ireland, there is a special ritual they celebrate to remember the dead. To support this discovery lets read an excerpt Dan Barry’s New York Times article The Lost Children of Tuam. In Barry’s article supports Browning’s belief in remembering the dead where he wrote “the first night of November — the eve of All Souls’ Day — in the belief that the dead will return. How it was best to stay in the center of the road when walking at night, so as not to disturb the spirits resting along the wayside.
Even today, the Irish say they do death well. Local radio newscasts routinely end with a recitation of death notices. In a country where the culture of Catholicism, if not its practice, still holds sway, this alerts the community to a familiar ritual: the wake at the home, the funeral Mass, the long gathering at the pub, the memorial Mass a month later, and the anniversary Mass every year thereafter.
Wry acceptance of mortality lives in the country’s songs, literature, and wit. A standard joke is the Irish marriage proposal: “Would you like to be buried with my people?” A standard song describes a thrown bottle splattering whiskey – from the Irish for “water of life” — over a corpse. Thus the late Tim Finnegan is revived at his wake; see how he rises.
Respect for burial grounds runs deep, with crowds gathering in their local cemetery once a year to pray as a priest blesses the dead within. This reverence for the grave may derive from centuries of land dispossession, or passed-on memories of famine corpses in the fields and byways, or simply be linked to a basic desire expressed by the planting of a headstone:
To be remembered.” 1
The themes we’ve just examined in Browning’s poem occur again in other literary works from more English authors that promoted similar subject matter in their written works.
Similar to Browning’s call to action for the injustice brought to children working in unsafe factories and mines, William Blake is another advocate of social justice exposing the tragedies of the working class youth in his 1789 poem The Chimney Sweeper. His poem discusses the realities of the young chimney sweepers that suffer perilous working conditions that led to their shortened mortality rate. Blake includes themes involving death, the immobility of the working class, and the government’s blind eye towards the poor. The immobility of a Chimney sweeper’s life begins when they’re a child as Blake describes “When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue Could scarcely cry ‘ ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’ So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep (Blake, 1-4).” The author introduces us to a child sold to labor where they must work as a Chimney sweeper that rests in the fine black dark powder of chimney soot. They are left unprotected from coal which can be cancerous. Those four lines tell us about the poor working conditions that come with the job. The poem takes a morbid turn revealing the theme of death where the speaker says “And so he was quiet, & that very night, As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight! That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack, Were all of them locked up in coffins of black (Blake, 9-12).” The third stanza now informs us that there are thousands of children doing the same harrowing activity of chimney sweeping in lots of coal. The coffins of black phrase is layered with literary elements of Imagery, metaphor and foreshadowing in which we can perceive with our eyes that Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack are trapped to work in a coal confined environment. The coffins of black phrase can also be a metaphor for the inescapability of the boxed chimneys where the sweepers have coal all over their bodies. The phrase also foreshadows their untimely deaths as the coffin hints that their lives are limited. The lines of, 9-12 is another example of immobility, death and the aristocracy’s unconcern for the sweeper’s predicament. The poem follows up with the sweepers dying as their souls reach the heavens: “And by came an Angel who had a bright key, And he opened the coffins & set them all free; Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run, And wash in a river and shine in the Sun. Then naked & white, all their bags left behind, They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind. And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for his father & never want joy (Blake, 16-20).” This part of the poem provides the imagery of a dream sequence of the children being unlocked out of their coffins by an angel and set free. However, this is the imagery for death in which they’ll die, but they’ll be set free from working the chimneys as they’re now in heaven and fathered by God. This was the same result discovered in Browning’s poem where death is the only escape from slavery. Notice how the sweepers are the innocent victims of the smoking coals of industrialization. The maltreatment is in relation to the same way that Browning describes the issue as both poets promote abolishing the injustices of industrialization for poor children using similar themes.
The recurring themes of working class immobility, death and neglect from the disenfranchised continues with the satirical poet and political pamphleteer, Jonathan Swift. His 1729 satirical essay, A modest Proposal, starts with him stating that poverty-stricken Irish families have exhausted their expenses to feed their children. Swift proposes that the solution to the poverty families are forced to live can be prevented if they fatten up their children and sell them to rich English landowners in Ireland. He argues that children should be fed indulgently at the age of one year old and then be sold to the meat markets so that they can be sold to consumers in exchange for profit. This tactic will also decrease the overpopulation of people in Ireland. We revisit the immobilized theme of the impoverished where it is proposed that children are sold to be a product without their consent. The satire is used to criticize the politics in England in which they ignore the poor living on the streets with no money to feed their kids. A grotesquely humorous proposal from swift was used to gain his audience’s attention, mainly England and Ireland to open their eyes and realize that people are dying in the streets from starvation and lack of money and resources. Death is another aspect of the proposal where children are born only to reach an untimely death since they are to be used as a food source. The proposal is possibly a precursor mocking England’s exploitation of forced child labor during the industrial revolution for the elite to obtain more economic and political gain. Swift argues the economy can thrive if poor families can breed their children only to sell them eventually on the mass market to prevent hunger. He strongly believes that “a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust (Swift, 9-12). The children are reduced from human beings to being considered as a meal for luxurious dining. Having them marketed as livestock is no different than the livestock of chicken or cattle being bred to be exploitatively sold for profit. The satire provides a clear explanation for the reappearing theme of class division where the poor is overlooked and the wealthy is the only class receiving the glory. In addition, it is suggested that Swift highlights the themes social justice, death, and immobility of the poor working class using satire once again as a tool to convey his message. Another example is where he persuades his audience with statistical information calculating how many children can be used for saleable food he lets the public know “that of the hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one fourth part to be Males (Swift, 10),” and Swift follows with comparing children to animals “which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine (Swift, 10),” and he resumes stating “that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages, therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females (Swift, 10).” Death is a part of the process of Swift’s proposal in this case because dead humans are sold as a commodity. Children are immobilized from living a normal childhood as they have no freedom to make their own decisions under poverty. The rich landowners of England and Ireland remain exploiting the poor for their personal interests. In Judith Flander’s published article Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, her evidence suggests that “previously, the rich and poor had lived in the same districts: the rich in the main streets; the poor in the service streets behind. Now, the prosperous moved out of town centres to the new suburbs, while much of the housing for the poor was demolished for commercial spaces, or to make way for the railway stations and lines that appeared from the 1840s. Property owners received compensation; renters did not: it was always cheaper to pay off the owners of a few tenements than the houses of many middle-class owners. Thus the homes of the poor were always the first to be destroyed (Flanders, 1).” In agreement to that fact, Swift’s modest proposal demonstrates class as social groups that shouldn’t be treated more differently than the other. Poor children are just as worthy as rich children. When Ireland undergoes an economic downfall and is overpopulated, it is easy to use the poor people as a statistic. Instead of the wealthy boasting their vanity and pride over their assets, they should have consideration to be charitable to the poor that share the communities with them. Those in Ireland that possess the most wealth should help out those who are less fortunate in their communities rather than isolate themselves from them. Not helping the poor will cause a wider gap in class segregation and economic prosperity will collapse as a nation. This is what swift was proposing in between the lines of his proposal.
Overall, we can all agree that the English literary authors during this period of time fully opposed the dark side of industrialization by taking a stand against it through their writing. Together they utilized the themes of death, exploited child labor that immobilized the lives of children and the immediate call for social injustice. Their written pieces spread public awareness to the problems that disservice disenfranchised people depraved of economic mobility. Browning’s poem made us think about what it’s like for children to be sold to labor in which their mortality was shortened from poor working conditions and could not live a life outside working in mines and factories due to corporate greed. Blake emphasized the importance of something similar in his poem where we investigated the exploitation of the chimney sweeping business in which children were forced to clean boxed in chimneys and tolerate the toxic coal that made thousands of them sick and dying. Although Swift’s proposal is satirical, he knew how to get under the skin of the aristocracy. To settle his angst, he ridiculed them with his humor. Swift’s idea was to criticize the ruling wealthy class’s lack of sympathy for the poor and failure to prevent the overpopulation of poor communities that deserve the same value as the rich. Swift’s proposal had the themes of death, the paralysis of free will for the less fortunate in Ireland and mirroring the ugly face of England’s politics for the sake of the government to provide social reform. The result of these literary works surfacing the general public made waves of social changes in light of what these authors stood for. Since The Cry of the Children condemned child labor, it helped establish child labor reforms by raising support for Lord Shaftesbury’s Ten Hours Bill in 1844. Lord Shaftesbury was a British politician and social reformer in the United Kingdom. Many children working in chimney sweeping suffered from ‘deformity of the spine, legs and arms’ or contracted testicular cancer. The practice was not abolished until 1875, nearly 50 years after Blake’s death. 2 Swift’s political satire was misinterpreted by the Queen of England. If there was anything Swift was good at, it was getting under people’s skin. 3 Hopefully this discussion will inspire literary authors will follow the legacy of promoting social reform or social justice in their communities or even spreading their literary work globally in our future for the welfare of humankind.
- Browning, Elizabeth. The Cry of the Children.
- Blake, William. The Chimney Sweeper.
- Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal.
- Barry, D. (2019). The Lost Children of Tuam. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/28/world/europe/tuam-ireland-babies-children.html [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].
- Norton, G. (2014). William Blake’s Chimney Sweeper poems: a close reading. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/william-blakes-chimney-sweeper-poems-a-close-reading [Accessed 15 May 2014].
- Flanders, J. (2014). Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/slums [Accessed 21 Nov. 2019].
- Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘A Modest Proposal Theme of Politics.’ Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 20 Nov. 2019.
- Norton, George. ‘William Blake’S Chimney Sweeper Poems: A Close Reading’. The British Library, 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/william-blakes-chimney-sweeper-poems-a-close-reading. Accessed 15 May 2014.