Robert Browning was a Victorian poet, famed for writing dramatic monologues, of which The Laboratory is a fine example. This poem is based on a true story from seventeenth-century France, where the now infamous Madame de Brinvilliers, poisoned several members of her own family. She was found guilty and executed by guillotine in Paris, 1676. It was not uncommon during this time for people to poison their enemies- the Medici family from Italy were famed for this in particular. Browning often took inspiration from such gruesome tales for his poetry, Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess are other examples where characters came to an untimely end.
The setting for this monologue is in a laboratory, where a vengeful wife oversees an apothecary as he blends a poison; its intended use being to kill her husband’s lover. Despite the dark subject manner, the tone of the poem is gleeful and energetic; Browning’s character is like a pantomime villain, and we see her excitement mount as she witnesses the grisly process.
Form and meter
This poem is written in mostly written in anapestic tetrameter, which is consists of two unstressed syllables, followed by a stress. It creates here a staccato rhythm which suggests the adrenaline-fuelled energy of the Speaker.
Analysis The Laboratory
Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze thro’ these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil’s-smithy—
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?
Browning immediately creates an eerie scene. We sense the villainous wife looking on with deep interest, through the ‘faint smoke’. The use of the word ‘gaze’ suggests that she is staring in wonder; fascinated as she looks on. Immediately we are aware that this is a sinister place, as Browning employs the metaphor ‘devil’s-smithy’. Normally we would assume that an apothecary is where one visits to find healing medicines, but this one is being used for the opposite purpose. The alliteration and repetition in the last line creates a busy, frenetic rhythm. It is amusing that the Speaker uses the word ‘prithee’, (an old-fashioned word meaning ‘if you please’) when speaking to the apothecary, as he is creating a lethal concoction at her command.
He is with her, and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
Empty church, to pray God in, for them!—I am here.
Here we gain an insight into the affair which is spurring the wife to commit this act of vengeance. The use of repetition in the first monosyllabic line, creates a mirrored effect, and highlights how brazen the couple are, as they flaunt their adulterous relationship. It seems that they almost have contempt for the cuckolded wife, and the repetition of ‘laugh’ compounds this sense. However, the narrator tells us, she will have the last laugh. They believe her to be seeking solace in a cold, grey church when instead she is busily plotting against them. The last sentence is exclamatory which adds impact, as does the dash before her triumphant statement, ‘I am here.’
Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,
Pound at thy powder,—I am not in haste!
Better sit thus and observe thy strange things,
Then go where men wait me and dance at the King’s.
This stanza is full of active verbs such as ‘grind’, ‘pound’, ‘moisten’ which vividly recreate the actions of the apothecary as he prepares the deadly elixir. This is illustrated by the dash and exclamation mark in the second line. The plosive ‘p’ sounds and assonance also replicate the motion of the process, which the Speaker clearly enjoys watching, even more than she would go to court to dance.
That in the mortar—you call it a gum?
Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
Sure to taste sweetly,—is that poison too?
The use of question marks in this stanza shows how the woman is taking an avid interest. She is both curious and inquisitive, and this style of questioning also adds a touch of drama to the poem. She appears to delight in this nefarious activity as she describes both the process and the elixir in such delicious detail that we can almost see it. The long vowel sounds (assonance) in ‘gold oozings’ and the adjective ‘brave’, show how she is almost mesmerized by the colours and textures. It is ironic that such beautiful potions are destined to cause harm, especially with the gentle sibilance of ‘sure to taste sweetly’ which is then off-set by the question ‘-is that poison too?’ She may seem transfixed by the colours of the poisons, but her real aim is never far from her mind.
Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures,
What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures!
To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,
A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!
Her excitement seems almost palpable now, as she refers to the array of poisons as ‘treasures’. She uses personification to refer to the contents of the room as a ‘wild crowd of invisible pleasures!’ Browning uses the literary technique of metonymy here, which is describing something by another item or thing with which it is closely associated. By referring to the poison as ‘pure death’, we are aware of its potency.
Next, she uses a list to rhyme off the many ways in which poison can be concealed. These are all innocent-sounding items, associated with women and feminine charms. It is all the more disturbing because these dainty objects such as a ‘filigree basket’ would traditionally be given as a gift- a deadly offering indeed! Browning uses punctuation to great effect in this stanza, to show how she can barely contain herself: she is having a thoroughly delightful time, thinking up her evil schemes!
Soon, at the King’s, a mere lozenge to give
And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live!
But to light a pastile, and Elise, with her head
And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!
Here, she imagines the culmination of her plan. However, she seems to have not just one victim now, but two. She revels in the notion that by giving a ‘mere lozenge’ to the unsuspecting Pauline, she will have only ’30 minutes to live.’ The adjective ‘mere’ emphasizes how harmless the lozenge looks. With regards to Elise, she intends to murder her by lighting a sort of incense or candle, the fumes of which will kill her. She lists every part of Elise, seemingly taking great satisfaction in imagining her death. The alliteration of ‘drop dead!’, followed by an exclamation mark, shows her gleeful feelings.
Quick—is it finished? The colour’s too grim!
Why not soft like the phial’s, enticing and dim?
Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir,
And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer!
The Speaker suddenly snaps out of her reverie and gets back to the matter at hand. We have a change of tempo with the question, ‘Quick- is it finished? However, she now sees herself as something of an expert and starts giving orders to the apothecary. She deems the colour ‘too grim’ which she fears may arouse suspicion. Browning groups soft ‘i’ vowel sounds with ‘enticing and dim’, which make the poison actually sound tempting. The Speaker again takes pleasure that her victim will take something that will ‘brighten her drink’ and the proliferation of busy verbs such as ’turn’ and ‘stir’ and ‘try’ and ‘taste’, speed the poem along and convey her growing anticipation.
What a drop! She’s not little, no minion like me—
That’s why she ensnared him: this never will free
The soul from those masculine eyes,—say, “no!”
To that pulse’s magnificent come-and-go.
The Speaker continues to give orders in these four lines and wants to ensure that there isn’t sufficient poison to kill her enemy. The use of exclamatory language and short sentences in the first line suggest that she is almost insulted by the apothecary offering such a small amount. By declaring ‘She’s not little, like me!’ she implies that the woman is rather large and thus will need a hefty dose to kill her. Oddly she seems to see her husband as the innocent party who has been ‘ensnared’ by this woman, and in particular by her ‘masculine eyes’. Why they should appear ‘masculine’ we do not know. Perhaps she means that they are calculating, in which case the lover has met her match! The use of enjambment in this verse further shows her excitement, as does her lively description of the heartbeat which is felt through the ‘pulse’.
For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall,
Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all!
We gain an even greater insight into the inner mechanisms of the speaker’s mind now, as she reveals that she thought she may, herself, contain sufficient malevolence to kill her arch-rival on the spot. The intimacy of the husband and his lover are again alluded to as ‘they whispered’ together. Rich imagery is used in the word ‘shrivelled’ to show how the Speaker would like her to ‘fall’. Sadly, she was unable to bring this about through her ‘own eyes’ but she comforts herself, knowing now that this potion ‘does it all!’
Not that I bid you spare her the pain!
Let death be felt and the proof remain;
Brand, burn up, bite into its grace—
He is sure to remember her dying face!
Browning is determined not to hide the depth of this spurned woman’s hatred. She instructs the apothecary to ensure that her victim suffers. The strong alliterative plosive ‘b’ sounds, along with the monosyllables, reinforces that she wants to savor her distress. She also wants her husband to witness it to inflict pain and trauma upon him too.
Is it done? Take my mask off! Nay, be not morose;
It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close:
The delicate droplet, my whole fortune’s fee—
If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?
The orders continue and we sense her eagerness to get started with the plan. The fact that she orders the apothecary: ‘be not morose’ suggests that he was, perhaps, an unwilling accomplice, and is regretting ever agreeing to this heinous business. The speaker, however, is untroubled, saying firmly ‘It kills her’. Sensuous language is used in the description of the ‘delicate droplet’- this whole ugly plan seems to have drawn out the Speaker’s poetic side. She does not even seem aggrieved that this ‘droplet’ is costing her ‘whole fortune’s fee’: her only goal is to achieve retribution and if this is done, her life will be pain-free. Again, the alliteration almost makes the poem dance along with a kind of jagged, nervous energy.
Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,
You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!
But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings
Ere I know it—next moment I dance at the King’s!
In gratitude, she tells the apothecary ‘take all my jewels’ and urges him to ‘gorge gold’ if he so wishes: the combination of assonance and alliteration here accentuates these words. his effect creates a rather gruesome image of her reluctant partner in crime gobbling up her gold and poisoning himself into the bargain. Browning seems to be really enjoying playing with words and retelling this gory tale.
So thrilled is the Speaker that she tells the ‘old’ man he can even kiss her ‘on the mouth’ which creates further unpleasant imagery at the image of a grisly old man and this vindictive young woman sharing a moment of intimacy. She orders the old man to ‘brush this dust of me’ lest she turns up looking disheveled. Again the internal rhyme here lends the poem a richness of sound. The final line captures her exhilaration as she leaves to ‘dance at the King’s!’
Poison obtained, the spurned wife gleefully heads off to put it to use, leaving to go to the court to mingle with the other aristocrats, who suspect nothing of her cunning plan.
She is not unlike arch-villain Lady Macbeth who tells her husband: ‘look like th’innocent flower, /but be the serpent under’t.’
Robert Browning (1812-1889) was born in London, though he lived the latter years of his life in Italy with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. He published this poem in 1844. Although he also wrote children’s work, such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin, it is for dramatic monologues such as this, with the psychological and historical commentary which they provide, for which he was most famed.