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Despite the fact that "The Cry of the Children" has been consistently recognized by Victorian and modern critics as one of the best verses in the two-volume Poems, 1844, which established Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a major Victorian poet, modern critical opinion has routinely dismissed it as too religious, sentimental, or socially conscious to be considered aesthetically worthy. (1) Alethea Hayter found the poem too religious for a modern audience while Angela Leighton described it as "a propagandistically tear-jerking poem." Similarly, Dorothy Mermin deemed its "meter awkward, the diction sentimental and false ..., the tears ... too profuse and damp, and the appeal to our feelings inartistically explicit"; bluntly put, Mermin found it "painful to read." (2) For these critics, there is too much of the sentimental in "The Cry of the Children" for it to be considered a poem of literary accomplishment. Working to restore Barrett Browning to the preeminence she enjoyed during her lifetime, Hayter, Leighton, and Mermin seem to be looking for an aesthetic experience which takes pleasure in subtle, ironic, indirect means of appeal and persuasion. Modern critical assessments of "good" literature tend to denigrate poetry which appeals to people's emotions or invokes religion as sentimental. From the modern critical perspective, being labeled sentimental is a pejorative judgment. Thus, such critics turn from the "The Cry of the Children" in confusion and even embarrassment. They are discomforted by the poem's pathos, piety, and passion--its "sentimentality"--and therefore judge it as "artistically weak or defective." (3) Unwilling to apply aesthetic evaluation to the poem's sentimentality, critics say such writing is beneath aesthetic consideration. By acceding to the twentieth-century bias against sentimentality, they perpetuate an uncritical and, in its own way, quite ideologically repressive view of aesthetic experience which ignores the artistic accomplishments of some of Barrett Browning's most enduring work, especially in Poems, 1844. If as Joanne Dobson has asserted, "literary sentimentalism ... is premised on an emotional and philosophical ethos that celebrates human connection, both personal and communal," then it should come as no surprise that Barrett Browning's Poems, 1844 contains numerous verses written in the sentimental tradition# According to Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott, the publication of Poems, 1844 marked a progression in Barrett Browning's artistic and social development which embraced the notion that poetry had the power to affect change; from 1844 on her "engagement with contemporary debates" grew (p. 88). Further, Marjorie Stone notes that Barrett Browning aligned herself with the vates model of the poet; that is, she viewed herself as a poet-prophet "speaking at the centre of culture to an audience and seeking to influence that audience." (5) Indeed, as early as 1826, she claimed that "ethical poetry is the highest of all poetry forms" and that "poetry should be able to encompass argument and persuasion." (6) Not only did Barrett Browning think that poetry could be ethical, she also thought that it could and should be religious and did not hesitate to incorporate religiosity into her poetry. In the face of her desire to make her contemporaries think and act in response to the pressing problems of her day, Barrett Browning's use of passionate feeling, religion, and other aspects of sentimentality seems entirely appropriate. Indeed, as Fred Kaplan has informed us, "most Victorians believed that the human community was one of shared moral feelings, and that sentimentality was a desirable way of feeling and of expressing ourselves morally." (7) Many verses in Poems, 1844 and the reactions of Barrett Browning's first critics to them bear out Kaplan's contentions. Modern scholars like those quoted above, however, have chosen to ignore, dismiss, or denigrate this aspect of Barrett Browning's poetry. In doing so

Professional & Technical
22 December
West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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