A Song for the Ragged Schools of London

Table of contents

1. A Song for the Ragged Schools of London Written in Rome a

I am listening here in Rome. 1
“England’s strong,” say many speakers,
“If she winks, the Czar must come 3
Prow and topsail, to the breakers.”
“England’s rich in coal and oak,”
Adds a Roman, getting moody,
“If she shakes a travelling cloak,
Down our Appian 8roll the scudi.” 8
“England’s righteous,” they rejoin:
“Who shall grudge her exaltations,
When her wealth of golden coin
Works the welfare of the nations?”
I am listening here in Rome.
Over Alps a voice is sweeping—
“England’s cruel! save us some
Of these victims in her keeping!”
As the cry beneath the wheel
Of an old triumphal Roman — 18
Cleft the people’s shouts like steel,
While the show was spoilt for no man,
Comes that voice. Let others shout,
Other poets praise my land here:
I am sadly sitting out,
Praying, “God forgive her grandeur.”
Shall we boast of empire, where
Time with ruin sits commissioned?
In God’s liberal blue air
Peter’s dome 28 itself looks wizened;
And the mountains, in disdain,
Gather back their lights of opal
From the dumb, despondent plain,
Heaped with jawbones of a people.
Lordly English, think it o’er,
Cæsar’s doing is all undone!
You have cannons on your shore,
And free parliaments in London;
Princes’ parks, 37 and merchants’ homes,
Tents for soldiers, ships for seamen,—
Ay, but ruins worse than Rome’s,
In your pauper men and women.
Women leering through the gas
(Just such bosoms used to nurse you),
Men, turned wolves by famine—pass!
Those can speak themselves, and curse you.
But these others—children small,
Spilt like blots about the city,
Quay, and street, and palace-wall—
Take them up into your pity! 48
Ragged children with bare feet,
Whom the angels in white raiment,
Know the names of, to repeat
When they come on you for payment.
Ragged children with bare feet,
Huddled up out of the coldness
On your doorsteps, side by side,
Till your footman damns their boldness.
In the alleys, in the squares,
Begging, lying little rebels;
In the noisy thoroughfares,
Struggling on with piteous trebles.
Patient children—think what pain
Makes a young child patient—ponder!
Wronged too commonly to strain
After right, or wish, or wonder.
Wicked children, with peaked chins,
And old foreheads! there are many
With no pleasures except sins,
Gambling with a stolen penny.
Sickly children, that whine low
To themselves and not their mothers,
From mere habit,—never so
Hoping help or care from others.
Healthy children, with those blue
English eyes, fresh from their Maker,
Fierce and ravenous, staring through
At the brown loaves of the baker.
I am listening here in Rome,
And the Romans are confessing,
“English children pass in bloom
All the prettiest made for blessing.”
“Angli angeli!” (resumed ,
From the mediæval story) 82
“Such rose angelhoods, emplumed
In such ringlets of pure glory!”
Can we smooth down the bright hair,
O my sisters, calm, unthrilled in
Our heart's pulses? Can we bear
The sweet looks of our own children,
While those others, lean and small,
Scurf 90 and mildew of the city,
Spot our streets, convict us all
Till we take them into pity?
“Is it our fault?” you reply,
“When, throughout civilization,
Every nation’s empery 95
Is asserted by starvation?
“All these mouths we cannot feed,
And we cannot clothe these bodies.”
Well, if man’s so hard indeed,
Let them learn at least what God is!
Little outcasts from life’s fold,
The grave’s hope they may be joined in,
By Christ’s covenant consoled
For our social contract’s grinding.
If no better can be done,
Let us do but this,—endeavor
That the sun behind the sun
Shine upon them while they shiver!
On the dismal London flags, 109
Through the cruel social juggle, 110
Put a thought beneath their rags
To ennoble the heart’s struggle.
O my sisters, not so much
Are we asked for—not a blossom
From our children’s nosegay, such
As we gave it from our bosom,—
Not the milk left in their cup,
Not the lamp while they are sleeping,
Not the little cloak hung up
While the coat’s in daily keeping,—
But a place in Ragged Schools,
Where the outcasts may to-morrow
Learn by gentle words and rules
Just the uses of their sorrow.,
O my sisters! children small,
Blue-eyed, wailing through the city—
Our own babes cry in them all:
Let us take them into pity.

2. Note on the text

Her sister Arabella Moulton Barrett asked EBB and RB to donate poems to be sold at a bazaar (April 19, 1854) to benefit the “ragged schools.” These charity schools for poor children, usually sponsored by churches, offered basic education classes taught by middle- and upper-class volunteers. Arabella supported them as a teacher and administrator, and RB reported that she later established “a Ragged Girls’ School of her own.” a1 For the fund-raising bazaar, RB provided “The Twins” and EBB wrote this poem, commenting to Arabella, “The Ragged School cause is one of those unquestionable causes, which every man with a sense of justice in him & every woman with a throb of pity in her ... must give their sympathy & good wishes” ( LTA 2:69). They asked their publisher Chapman and Hall to print two or three hundred copies of the two poems in a pamphlet, for sale at sixpence apiece. a2 This was the only time the Brownings published their poems together in an independent volume. The resulting pamphlet edition, Two Poems by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (1854), may have inspired the many forged editions by Thomas Wise of Victorian poetical works—among them editions of Sonnets from the Portuguese and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” a3 EBB’s concern for England’s poor traces back to her earliest juvenilia, with its sympathetic depictions of the needy and homeless: at age nine or ten she wrote five poems to be sold at a charity bazaar. a4 Casa Guidi Windows (especially 2:577-656) and Aurora Leigh similarly express her mature critique of the poverty and prostitution in the heart of the English empire. One Victorian reviewer praised this work as “memorable,” while another, in 1890, recalled it as among the poet’s most “compassionate” poems, linking it to “The Cry of the Children.” a5 Stone (1986, 1995) notes EBB’s polemical use of the ballad form and the echoes and revision of “The Mask of Anarchy” (1820) by P.B. Shelley (1792-1822); Barker (2003) explores connections between the pamphlet publication of Two Poems and the Wise forgeries.

3. Explanatory Notes

Rome This is the title employed by RB in the volume Last Poems, which he assembled after EBB’s death following her plan. The poem’s title as first published in 1854 was “A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London,” followed by the subtitle, as it is in two fair copy mss. One of these—evidently the printer’s copy—includes the date “March 20. 1854,” following the title; in the printed pamphlet the date appears at the end of the poem (see R D870-72).

Rome Cf. the opening line of Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy”: “As I lay asleep in Rome.”

Czar This poem was written early in the Crimean War, when England fought Russia (ruled by a Czar) in Turkey, to maintain Turkish independence and also to protect British trade routes to the east.

Appian The Appian Way is an ancient paved road (dating from 312 B.C.), extending about 350 miles between Rome and Brindisi.

scudi Italian coins.

triumphal Roman To welcome home victorious generals and their armies, ancient Rome staged triumphs, public celebrations involving great parades in which the heroes rode in chariots, often exhibiting prisoners taken in battle.

Peter’s dome the grand dome on St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican in Rome.

parks This poem appeared during a time of national prosperity for England which had been celebrated in 1851 by the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park, a grand display of the empire’s technology, arts, and riches organized by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. In Casa Guidi Windows (1851) EBB had bitingly satirized English pride in the wealth displayed at the Great Exhibition while the nation’s poor suffered; see especially 2.632-41. See also EBB’s “The Cry of the Children.”.

pity an echo of Andromache’s appeal to Hector in a passage of Homer’s Greek epic The Iliad (c. 8th century B.C., from Bk. 6) that EBB had translated (CW 6:158, l. 42).

mediaeval story Bede’s Latin Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation , completed in 731 A.D.) relates the story of the future Pope Gregory I (the Great) remarking English boys being sold in a Roman marketplace. Noting their fair hair and skin, Gregory asked their nationality. Told that they were Angles, he replied “Non angli, sed angeli” (Not Angles, but angels), and he requested that missionaries be sent to England to convert its people to Christianity (Bk. 2, ch. 1).

scurf loose, scaly crust coating a surface; scaly dry skin, dandruff.

empery dominion, sovereignty.

flags flagstones, paving stones.

juggle a piece of juggling or conjurer's trick; hence, an act of deception, an imposture, cheat, fraud, here conveying the confusing mobility of the London crowd and the deceptions practised on innocents within it.

The phrase “Ragged London” became widely used in the Victorian period to designate the city’s poor. The Ragged Schools Union was established in 1844, with eighty schools affiliated by the later 1840s (LTA 1:110n24, xxiii).

LTA 2:68, 69n8. See also LEBB 2:185.

See the headnotes to these poems in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Selected Annotated Critical Edition, ed. Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (Broadview Press, 2009), as well as Richard D. Altick, The Scholar Adventurers. (NY: Macmillan, 1950), ch. 2; and the detailed treatment of the pamphlet Two Poems in Barker.

See HUPS 1:95-98.

See Donaldson (1993), 1862.10; 1899.9.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: February 20, 2009
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