“Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna;”
[Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children.]—Medea.
Questions? of course you have questions. You’re probably wondering why I have decided to start this entry with a quotation that seemingly has no bearing on my discussion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children.” I know, it is quite daring. However, this technique is not unique as it is one that Elizabeth Barrett Browning employed more than a century ago.
To be completely honest, when I first read “The Cry of the Children,” I could not comprehend the relevance of Medea’s quotation to the poem at all, which is why I completely dismissed it. I could not understand its purpose or why Barrett Browning would include it in her poem. I thought the poem did not require any support of Medea’s quotation to convey its overall thesis. However, that did not sit well with me, as I thought the quotation had to have some sort of significance, because why would an established Victorian writer just throw in an unnecessary quotation and especially at the beginning of her poem with no context beforehand?
Thanks to my unrelenting curiosity and further research, things began to make sense. The quotation is a reference to Greek mythology, more specifically Euripides’s Greek tragedy Medea. In this ancient story, the enchantress Medea helps Jason, leader of the Argonauts, steal the Golden Fleece from her father, King Aeëtes, prompting her to flee from her home with Jason when her father begins to pursue them. To secure her and Jason’s escape to Colchis, Medea resorts to murdering her own brother to delay her fathers’ pursuits. However, Medea is later betrayed by Jason when he deserts her to marry the daughter of King Creon; tormented by her grief, Medea murders King Creon and his daughter as the ultimate act of retribution. Medea contemplates murdering her and Jason’s two sons. While grappling with her decision, Medea looks at her children and utters, “Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children” before ultimately deciding that murdering her children would be the best punishment for Jason.
Now that Medea’s statement has some context, its relevance to the poem becomes clear. Firstly, Barrett Browning’s poem is a literary critique of the mistreatment of children at the hands of the British empire; the poem acts as a plea for children to be treated by and cared for with compassion. Secondly, by juxtaposing young animals frolicking freely in nature and children confined within an industrial prison, Barrett Browning emphasizes the children’s unnatural state. The children’s misery and distress are further reinforced through the depiction of their faces as “pale and sunken” (25). The reoccurring motif of faces appears numerous times throughout the poem and can be tied back to Medea’s quotation to foster a sense of unity between the two literary pieces. The quotation’s significance becomes blatant in the last stanza of the poem when the children “look up, with their pale and sunken faces” and utter “How long … how long, O cruel nation’” (145). Barrett Browning initially mimics Medea’s quotation in this sentence to further draw on those parallels and elicit an implicit connection between the two literary pieces.
Although this might appear to be a lot of work just to equate two seemingly distinct pieces of literature, Medea’s quotation actually serves as an allegory for the British empire, and the children’s plea for freedom parallels that of Medea’s own children. Moreover, Britain’s neglect of its children represents Medea’s murder of hers. Both Medea and the British Empire fail to bestow mercy upon the innocent children they are responsible for. This quotation elevates the poem and further emphasizes Medea’s emblematic role as the British empire. Ultimately, the reference to Medea further emphasize the poem’s central argument
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “The Cry of the Children .” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43725/the-cry-of-the-children.