When speaking about the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson noted that “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.” The same could be said of the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian Age. One cannot expect to be translated from an agrarian society to an industrial society in a featherbed, and the literature of the Victorian Age reflects this. As factories and machinery became essential in England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the more natural farming times passed away, the change did not come painlessly.
The Victorian poets responded to these growing pains in various ways. In the poetry of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gerald Manley Hopkins, pictorial language is used to discuss the ills of innovation, yet Browning focuses on pointing out the injustices for the purpose of making a call to action in the Christian society of the time, whereas Hopkins tends to highlight the goodness of God in spite of the negative aspects of the rising industry.
In 1843, Browning wrote a poem called “The Cry of the Children,” bringing to light the harmful effects of child labor in factories and mines through vivid images of these poor children, who “look up with their pale and sunken faces.” This poem illustrates the children in such a way that we see them as almost dead, as laboring has turned them into machines. Speaking in the voice of the children, Browning gives a picture of the hopelessness of their daily lives saying, “For, all day the wheels are droning, turning; their wind comes in our faces, till our hearts turn, our heads with pulses burning.” Throughout the poem, Browning goes back and forth, speaking first as the narrator and then from the children’s point of view, allowing the reader to literally hear the cry of these children.
Browning maintains this style in most of her poetry, including the poem “Mother and Poet,” which was one of her last, written the year she died. In this poem, she writes from the persona of a mother who has lost both of her children in the Italian fight for unification of Italy. Just as the reader feels the hopelessness of the children in “The Cry of the Children,” in “Mother and Poet,” the reader is able to feel the pain of the mother at the loss of her only two sons. Browning sets this up in the third stanza, as the mother talks about the bond between mother and child asking, “What art is [woman] good at, but hurting her breast with the milk-teeth of babes, and a smile at the pain?”
This descriptive picture is so touching that even someone without children can feel the strength of the unconditional love a mother feels for her children. In this beautiful imagery lies the magic of Browning’s poetry; she uses language to draw readers in by creating brilliantly touching images.
As she draws readers in with these images, Browning persuades readers to see how absolutely wrong the situation is. In “The Cry of the Children,” Browning says, “Let them feel that this cold metallic motion is not all the life God fashions or reveals.” She wants the society to see that this factory life is not a life that children should be living, and she appeals to the sense of Christianity in the society by suggesting that it is not the life that God designed for children.
In “Mother and Poet,” she speaks directly to Christ, as if in prayer, “O Christ… consider, I pray, how we common mothers stand desolate, mark, whose sons not being Christs, die with eyes turned away and no last word to say.” Although the character in the poem speaks directly to Christ, Browning is not trying to get the attention of God, but rather that of the Christian readers, that they may see the loss of life through God’s eyes.
In the first and last stanza of “Mother and Poet,” Browning makes her stance clear, as the mother tells the society that, if they “want a great song for Italy free, Let none look at me!” She cannot rejoice in the freedom of the unified Italy because it comes at such a high cost to her personally; Browning wants her audience to consider that cost and ask if the battle was really worth it. She uses a similar technique in “The Cry of the Children,” beginning the poem with the line, “Do you hear the children weeping, O my brothers,” which appears again towards the end of the poem. By beginning and ending the poem addressing her “brothers,” she makes it obvious that she is asking them to hear the cry of the laboring children.
That cry is found most succinctly in the last stanza when the children ask, “How long, O cruel nation, will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart?” Browning recognized that the industrial revolution was changing the world, but she did not feel that it was right for it to happen at the expense of the children, and she wanted the rest of society to join with her in recognizing this.
Gerald Manley Hopkins also noticed that there were definitely negative aspects to innovation, but took a different approach in writing about them; he chose to point out that God is still good in spite of these things. Like Browning, Hopkins also uses very descriptive language. Reminiscent of the Romantic writers, Hopkins notices the beauty in nature, such as in the poem “Pied Beauty,” in which he depicts “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches’ wings,” and other pictures of natural things.
In the poem, “God’s Grandeur,” he describes the majesty of God in the world saying, “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” His use of language is just as pictorial when he describes the negatives of innovation in the poem, how “generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” and how all “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” This gives the reader the image of many people laboring endlessly, leaving the world reeking with the odor of their sweat.
Apparently, Hopkins does not think that this is how God’s beautiful world should be, since he states that “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” Hopkins seems to suggest that innovation has somewhat spoiled the splendor of nature. He makes a similar point in “Pied Beauty.” After four lines describing how gorgeous nature is, he ends the first stanza describing how innovation changes this with “landscape plotted and pieces- fold, fallow, and plough, and all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.” These man-made plots of land and pieces of machinery definitely do not blend nicely with the natural images of dappled things, finches’ wings, and couple-coloured skies mentioned earlier in the poem.
While he does point out the downsides of this industrial revolution, Hopkins, unlike Browning, does not make a clear call to action. He seems to understand that this cannot be changed, and so, instead, decides to focus on the positives. In “Pied Beauty,” after mentioning the machinery that dots the landscape, Hopkins starts the second and final stanza by noting that, “All things counter, original, spare, strange… He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.”
Just as the title of the poem indicates, Hopkins chooses to see the world’s beauty as not spoiled, but rather just “pied,” or jumbled, because God “is past change,” and God created this world. His final thoughts in “God’s Grandeur” are quite similar. He again starts the second and final stanza by countering the negative sentiment in the prior stanza, declaring, “for all this [that is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil], nature is never spent.”
He concludes the poem with the comforting reminder that the world’s freshness will always be renewed, that morning comes each day, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Despite his reluctance as he watches the changes around him, Hopkins does not ask readers to call for any significant change; he simply points out that God is good regardless, and this is His world.
At first glance, the messages that Gerald Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Barrett Browning each send in their poetry can seem to be completely different, yet, looking a little deeper, the core of their messages is very similar. There is a hymn, written by Maltbie D. Bab¬cock in 1901, that says “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” In many ways, this is the implication at the heart of what both Hopkins and Browning are expressing.
The only difference is that Hopkins just wants to remind readers that God is in charge, and let that be that. Browning, on the other hand, would like her readers to do something. More specifically, she’d like them to stop doing something, allowing the exploiting of the children for the sake of revolution.