The Laboratory

              1  Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
              2  May gaze thro' these faint smokes curling whitely,
              3  As thou pliest thy trade in this devil's-smithy--
              4  Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?

              5  He is with her, and they know that I know
              6  Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow
              7  While they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear
              8  Empty church, to pray God in, for them!--I am here.

              9  Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,
            10  Pound at thy powder,--I am not in haste!
            11  Better sit thus and observe thy strange things,
            12  Than go where men wait me and dance at the King's.

            13  That in the mortar--you call it a gum?
            14  Ah, the brave tree whence such gold oozings come!
            15  And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue,
            16  Sure to taste sweetly,--is that poison too?

            17  Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures,
            18  What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures!
            19  To carry pure death in an earring, a casket,
            20  A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!

            21  Soon, at the King's, a mere lozenge to give
            22  And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live!
            23  But to light a pastile, and Elise, with her head
            24  And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!

            25  Quick--is it finished? The colour's too grim!
            26  Why not soft like the phial's, enticing and dim?
            27  Let it brighten her drink, let her turn it and stir,
            28  And try it and taste, ere she fix and prefer!

            29  What a drop! She's not little, no minion like me--
            30  That's why she ensnared him: this never will free
            31  The soul from those masculine eyes,--say, "no!"
            32  To that pulse's magnificent come-and-go.

            33  For only last night, as they whispered, I brought
            34  My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought
            35  Could I keep them one half minute fixed, she would fall,
            36  Shrivelled; she fell not; yet this does it all!

            37  Not that I bid you spare her the pain!
            38  Let death be felt and the proof remain;
            39  Brand, burn up, bite into its grace--
            40  He is sure to remember her dying face!

            41  Is it done? Take my mask off! Nay, be not morose;
            42  It kills her, and this prevents seeing it close:
            43  The delicate droplet, my whole fortune's fee--
            44  If it hurts her, beside, can it ever hurt me?

            45  Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill,
            46  You may kiss me, old man, on my mouth if you will!
            47  But brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings
            48    Ere I know it--next moment I dance at the King's!

            First publication date: June 1844
            Poem source:

          The poem I’m going to try to contextualize in the period we are studying (that is, the Victorian era) is “The Laboratory” by Robert Browning (1844). In my opinion, the author deals with several topics that were crucial in the era.  

           As we can observe, this poem is titled “The Laboratory”, and with this, the author puts us where the story takes place; and, of course, makes us evoke the image of Science. Scientific advances were very important at Victorian times. One of the major advances was the change of the so-called “naturalists” into “scientists”: Science was studied. Another important aspect is the study of the human being as an individual in a philosophical and physical way. It is very curious how the author mixes all these concepts. Firstly, he puts us in that laboratory, but if we read the poem carefully, we will appreciate that this “laboratory” looks more like a simple little magic shop where potions are made. And, in this case, the woman is asking to the salesman to sell her a poison. So, in a way, science is criticized not only because it is used as an instrument to murder, but because, maybe science had not changed so much for Browning because the purposes were still the same as they were in the past. This is also because Browning hated Science and the medical advances. He said: “I despise and abhor the pleas on behalf of that infamous practice, vivisection.... I would rather submit to the worst of deaths, so far as pain goes, than have a single dog or cat tortured to death on the pretense of sparing me a twinge or two” (Famous animal right quotes). So, we can see that he deals with this topic in a very ironic and critical way. 

           One can also observe, that the whole poem is focused from a feminine perspective, that means not only that the protagonist is a woman, but that the story is all surrounded by a female matter, that is the confrontation between two women because of a man. In fact, the story focuses in the demanding of poison by the protagonist in order to kill the woman who is sleeping with his husband (L.4-6). The important fact is that the author centres in the pain and the doubts that this woman has. We see, along the poem, all the conflict she is suffering because of the action she wants to commit. In my opi-nion, it is not very usual that a male author writes a poem about a total female matter (the possibility of a husband being unfaithful to his wife and the revenge of the wife); writing from the perspective of that woman and treating all her feelings and impressions so convincingly. 

         All that shows, one of the most important aspects of the Victorian era: the increasing importance of women in society (and of course in art) and the special treatment that female matters had in literature: (Bronte Sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, “George Elliot”). 

         Analysing the poem in a deeper way, we observe that other important topics of the time were also important. For example: religion. Religion was also very influential and determinative in the Victorian mind. The poem shows us a woman (as a reflection of society) who is marked by Puritanism. She wants to commit a crime, but her religious convictions do not allow her to do it. So, during the poem we see that struggle between her feelings and her religious faith: (lines 7-8). So, we appreciate a society which is still fighting for its development, but that has to confront against the religious certainties and dogmas. And this divergence is clearly expressed by the figure of the “glass mask” (L.1) that the woman wears during her reflection and that she finally wears off when the poem is concluded (L.41), as the time that the reflection and the murder are also concluded. The glass mask represents not only a symbol of that confrontation and hiding because of the “sinful” action the woman is performing, but also as a symbol of sexual repression that covers her face in front of a crime she is only carrying out for love and jealousy. Other aspect commented in the poem is the Crown, there are also several references to the king and the consequences that her actions will have (L.12. 21, 48). The expression: “I will dance at the king’s” shows not only the recognition and assumption of the murder she is going to make, but also illustrates the importance that the crown had to judge those actions just because religion and monarchy were very linked (Anglicanism). 

      But, in my opinion, the most important topic is the philosophical and ethical matter that the author presents. The author, with his technique of the dramatic monologue, puts us in the role of the merchant, who after listening to the woman’s justifications, must decide if he gives the poison to her. So this makes us (and the readers of the era) confront against a dilemma in which we must decide if we sympathise with that woman’s suffering or not. From my point of view, that demonstrates the important dilemmas that were taken at that era (specially those ones facing “reason or advancement” to “religion, crown, traditions…) and it is interesting how the poet presents all those conflicts and puts us in front of the girl and with the moral duty to make a decision which is difficult to take.



Famous Animal Right Quotes, Queensland Group for Animal Rights,, 28th May 2006

Victorian Science: An overview, The Victorian Web,,
Ed: George P. Landau, 28th May. 2006


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