A Song For The Ragged School Of London by Elizabeth Barrett Browning



I am listening here in Rome.
“England’s strong,” say many speakers,
“If she winks, the Czar must come,
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 roll the scudi.”


“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 triumphant Roman
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 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,
Caesar’s doing is all undone!
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.


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.

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But these others–children small,
Spilt like blots about the city,
Quay, and street, and palace-wall–
Take them up into your pity!


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, hungry-eyed,
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 mediaeval story)
“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 and mildew of the city,
Spot our streets, convict us all
Till we take them into pity?

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“Is it our fault?” you reply,
“When, throughout civilization,
Every nation’s empery
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,–endeavour
That the sun behind the sun
Shine upon them while they shiver!


On the dismal London flags,
Through the cruel social juggle,
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.

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