The Laboratory

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The Laboratory – (THESE NOTES MUST BE TRANSFERRED TO poem sheet)

Presented in the form of a dramatic monologue. This means that we are the unseen listeners who share in what is being said. In fact, the lady's words are addressed to an apothecary who does not speak at all.

The diction and use of language indicate that the poem is not written in "the present" (1842, when the poem first appeared). Instead, the poet chooses to distance us from the event itself by setting the action in what he terms the "ancien régime". We know that the speaker (the poet writing in the guise of a woman) is a member of the aristocracy. We can thus "date" the poem as occurring in pre-revolutionary France (often referred to as the "ancien régime"). This technique distances us from what might be seen as the possibly too stark horror of what the woman is plotting.

 

Look at the use of specific words that are used in connection with the process of creating the poison. You will notice that they tend to be somewhat exotic and even bizarre, incorporating images that refer to ideas of precious jewels.

In fact, the poem could be seen as a somewhat disturbing piece of writing that reveals to the reader an unbalanced character - and a woman at that - who is acting on revenge to commit a premeditated murder. This reminds us of the Gothic style of writing that became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, devoted to supernatural and horrifying events, peopled by disturbed and deranged characters.

 

During the course of reading the poem we are introduced to various characters. Most important, of course, is the speaker, an aristocratic lady of some means, influence, wealth and power. Then there is the man to whom she speaks, the silent apothecary. Added to this are the victims: the lover (or even husband perhaps) and his new mistress, her rival. Two other names appear, but they seem only to fit in with the theme of jealousy and revenge that is so much a part of this dramatic monologue. We will learn more about all of them as we work through the poem.

 

The poem is set out in twelve stanzas, each containing four lines, with a rhyme scheme of aabb. You might like to consider whether this, together with the somewhat lively rhythm and almost light-hearted tone, lightens what might have been a poem that would surely have offended Victorian values, predominantly intent as they were on fostering positive and healthy attitudes to life You might also like to pay attention to the poet's frequent use of alliteration to make a stronger point.

 

STANZA 1- TIME PLACE SPEAKER AND CHARACTERS

The opening stanza very clearly defines the purpose of the speaker: she is there to buy a poison "to poison her". The main theme of revenge is introduced, as is the rather frightening atmosphere of the laboratory in which the poison is being mixed. She remarks on the place as being "this devil's-smithy" and in this way we are introduced to the alchemist who will remain silent throughout the poem as he goes about his business of mixing the poison.

This opening stanza also makes us aware of the fact that the lady is jealous and vindictive, intent on killing her rival. During the course of the poem we will learn more about this rival, whereas the lover (perhaps the woman's husband or ex-lover) remains in the background.

The use of the woman's language places the poem in the past (ancien régime). You might find it a little startling when you read the directness of the last line of this stanza: "Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?" You will notice that the poet chooses to use alliteration to emphasise the woman's chilling intention. The strong rhyme, with the emphasis on "poison" and "prithee" adds to our surprise. This lady is bent on revenge, obviously deeply affected by the unfaithfulness of her lover. As the poem continues, we will follow her train of thought as she watches the old man at work.

STANZA 2 – THE SITUATION

In the second stanza the woman elaborates on the purpose of her visit. Her lover has jilted her. You will notice the bitterness in her words as she speaks of the two of them together. She fantasises about how they might be laughing at her plight. They imagine that she has gone to church to seek solace. They "believe my tears flow" she comments. The truth is, however, that "I am here". Do you agree that there is a very defiant and positive note in these final words? The lady appears very clear about her plan of action.

STANZAS 3-6  -: MIXING THE POTION – THOUGHTS ABOUT DEATH AND FIDELITY

Look at the words that the poet chooses to describe the process of mixing the potion in stanza 3. There is a harshness about what the apothecary is doing: "Grind … moisten … mash … / Pound". The violence of the words she chooses to use indicates something of the violence of the deed she wishes to commit, ie her brutal need for revenge. We are aware that the woman, although "not in haste", is watching very carefully what the old man is doing. It is almost as if she takes a morbid delight in the process that will lead to the death of her rival. In this stanza we are also introduced to a new aspect of the woman. There is a reference to dancing "at the King's" court. Obviously this is an aristocrat, a woman of wealth and influence. Yet she has come to this grim laboratory in order to make sure that she is able to rid herself of her loathsome rival.

You should notice how colour plays an important part in the poem, especially in this section as the potion is being mixed. In stanza 4 he refers to "gold oozings" as well as "the exquisite blue". She remarks about the fact that it is "Sure to taste sweetly", almost as though she is amazed that something so appealing should have such deadly results. Together with the woman we are almost seduced by the deceptive appearance of the "soft phial" that contains such a deadly solution.The sight of the old man working away at mixing his ingredients allows the woman to marvel at how easy it would be to "carry pure death in an earring, a casket, / A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!" These essentially feminine and well-crafted accessories again remind us of the fact that the lady is an aristocrat. Notice the irony as she speaks of the poisons as "thy treasures". For this woman the means of avenging herself is worth a great deal more than money or expensive possessions. Again we are reminded of the extent to which she will go in order to gain revenge.Stanza 6 sees the woman continue on the train of thought we had encountered in the previous stanza. Her thoughts turn to fantasies about how she could use these poisons to eliminate two ladies at the King's court: Pauline and Elise. Do you find the way in which she speaks of killing off these women as somewhat flippant and offhand, almost as though she would take delight in seeing them eliminated with such ease? It would take only "thirty minutes" to be rid of Pauline, while only a "pastille" will ensure that Elise "should drop dead". The use of monosyllables and alliteration emphasises the sense of finality. We are obviously dealing with a very dangerous and even deranged woman here. Yet you might at the same time like to consider whether Browning might not perhaps be taking this opportunity to poke fun at the excessive behaviour of a neurotic woman who will stop at nothing to gain revenge for being scorned in love. The somewhat indifferent way that she refers to their departure from life further suggests that the poet might well be making fun of the speaker. Keep this thought in mind as you continue reading the poem.On the other hand, consider the following. The poem emphasises the position of women in society at the time. All they had was their beauty and ability to attract men as avenues to power. The woman knows this and is thrilled by the ability that the poison gives her to dispose of rivals.

 

STANZA 7 -: DELIGHT AND DISAPPOINTMENT – THE POTION COMPLETE

 

Then, suddenly, the process is complete. There is a quickening of interest and a new excitement as the woman realises that the apothecary has finished his task: "Quick - is it finished?" Then comes the disappointment. For her, the "colour's too grim!" Do you notice the irony here? Although she is quite content to poison her rival, she is suddenly afraid that the colour is not sufficiently appealing. She would prefer that the victim should enjoy drinking down the poison: "Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir, / And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer!" The enormity of the deed is made all the more frightening by the seeming callousness with which the woman talks of the potion. This is heightened by the strong rhythm, with the use of "and" to link key ideas.

STANZAS 8-10

The speaker's thoughts now turn to her rival. We are obviously dealing with a very disturbed woman as we listen to her thoughts about her opponent, yet there is also a suggestion that she might not be this really strong and assertive woman. Look at stanzas 8 and 9. In the former she speaks of herself as being a "minion". She is small and petite, as opposed to the big, masculine-eyed rival. The rival becomes a figure of fun. It must be her strength of character that "ensnared him" then. Then her thoughts move to a time when she had tried to stand up to her competitor by fixing her with her eye. Again we are inclined to be scornful of a woman who feels that "I thought / Could I keep them [mine own eyes] one half minute fixed, she would fall / Shrivelled". The truth is "she fell not". Now the speaker has found the solution: "yet this does it all". Resorting to poison will ensure the couple are parted forever and she has what she feels is her just revenge: the death of her rival.

 

Look at the use of enjambment (the continuation of a sentence without pause at the end of a line) in stanza 9. Using this technique carries the thrust of the woman's argument forward far more forcefully. It also emphasises the sense of intimacy that the two lovers obviously share. You might like to look at how the poet uses this technique elsewhere in the poem.There is harshness - almost a viciousness - in the tone in stanza 9. Here her true vindictiveness and intent on revenge is revealed. The rival must suffer: "Not that I bid you spare her the pain: / Let death be felt and the proof remain: / Brand, burn up, bite into its grace". These are the remarks of a woman who has been scorned in love, and the effect is made all the more powerful by the use of alliteration of the strong explosive "b" sound. You should also watch out for the way in which Browning uses alliteration throughout the poem.Listen to the determination in the last line of this stanza: "He is sure to remember her dying face!" Even at this late point in the poem we are almost taken aback by the intense viciousness of this woman's need to avenge her hurt pride at being betrayed in love.

 

STANZAS 11-12 -: CONCLUSION AND CORRUPTION

 

A question denotes the fact that the process of mixing the poison is complete. Do you sense a feeling of pleasure now that she is in possession of the means to achieve her revenge? However, notice that the event will take place at a place where she need not be an onlooker: "and this prevents seeing it close". Look at the fascination with which she describes the potion as the "delicate droplet". Although it might cost her "my whole fortune's fee", it is worth the excessive expense. The last stanza introduces the idea of corruption - specifically a reference to the fact that money can buy the poison that is so necessary to the jealous speaker. Look at how Browning chooses to have the speaker comment that the apothecary should "gorge gold to your fill". The image here suggests real greed: money can buy everything, even death. But "gorge gold", literally, means to eat metal - not a very sustaining diet as Midas discovered.

 

However, corruption is not the domain of the old apothecary only. Here, at the end of the poem, we are given another insight into the character of the speaker as she offers the "old man" a kiss "on my mouth if you will". This is an unusual suggestion, given the fact that we are dealing with an aristocratic lady, as opposed to the old apothecary, a commoner and certainly below her social standing. Does this suggest that she might not be the lady we had anticipated her to be? Is she as desirable as we had thought? Could her lover perhaps have deserted her on account of her corrupt morals, her willingness to flirt with other men? You might also consider that this shows the lengths to which she is prepared to go in order to achieve her aim. Remember that she was prepared to sacrifice all her jewels as well.We are certainly asked to rethink this lady who dances at the court in the last stanza. Our final image of the woman comes about as she prepares to leave. As she removes the mask, her last thoughts are still of herself and any danger she might be in on account of the dust of the poison having settled on her or any part of her clothing: "But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings / Ere I know it". Consider that this might also be an ironic contrast. Dust is just dust, not poison. The woman will tolerate consorting with a man who provides poison, even kissing him, but allowing dust on her clothes is going too far.The poem closes on a chillingly frivolous note as the woman, now content that she has the means to kill off her rival without any pang of conscience, anticipates that "next moment I dance at the King's".

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

 

In this poem we are introduced to a macabre story of a woman scorned in love. However, although the subject matter might be somewhat frightening, the poet ensures that something of the horror is lessened by the use of humour and irony. There is something melodramatic about the way in which Browning deals with this potentially frightening subject. Although we come away from reading the poem with an uneasy feeling about the corruption, the extreme vengefulness and sexual jealousy of the speaker, we are also able to see the situation in perspective. Browning, although presenting a portrait of a very disturbed woman bent on revenge, also wishes to draw attention to the absurd, even comic, aspect of this scorned woman's behaviour. The situation is almost too outrageous to warrant serious consideration. In this way, the poet deflects something of what might otherwise be seen as a portrait of extreme Gothic horror.