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3 devil’s-smithy: i.e. a workshop fit for the devil: the laboratory with all its poisonous chemicals.
12 the King’s: i.e. at the court, presumably the court of King Louis XVI of France.
13 mortar: a bowl for grinding chemicals into powder.
14 brave: splendid.
15 phial: small glass container, test-tube.
20 signet: a kind of ring.
fan-mount: the small metal centre of a fan.
filigree basket: a little ornamental basket.
23 pastile: a stick of aromatic paste. The speaker is imagining one made of poison which, when lit, will give off poisonous vapours.
29 minion: little thing (from French mignonne).
31 masculine eyes: it’s Pauline’s eyes, in fact, that are so vibrant.
39 its grace: i.e. her face’s beauty.
This is in many ways a really sinister poem: Browning is creating for us the voice of a woman poisoner in eighteenth-century France.
As with “My Last Duchess” and “Ulysses”, this is a dramatic monologue, i.e. it is not the poet speaking to us, but the voice of a character that he has created. The setting here is the Ancien Régime, i.e. France before the Revolution. We are in French high society, the society around the King’s court. A woman (we don’t know her name) has been betrayed by her husband or lover with another woman, Pauline. Now, she is determined to get her revenge. And she has secretly gone off to an alchemist or chemist, who (for a large fee) has agreed to make her a deadly poison, with which she will be able to kill her rival. It sounds as though her husband or lover is a serial philanderer. This isn’t, in other words, the first time he has betrayed the speaker. Not only is the speaker jealous of Pauline, but she is jealous of a woman called Elise (23) as well.
In a mere forty-eight lines the poem gives us this story in incredible and vivid detail. We enter into the mind of the speaker, seeing her raging jealousy, her raging sense of betrayal, and now her fascination with the work of the chemist in his laboratory as he creates the poison that she thinks will end her troubles. Clearly she has become sociopathic or psychopathic as a result of being betrayed: she really wants her revenge. She wears a mask to protect her from the fumes that may be poisonous (1). She looks round eagerly at all the different chemicals and glass containers in the laboratory (13–15). She is delighted at the idea that the poison could be hidden away in a ring, or in a secret little hole in a fan-mount (20). She wants actually to witness the moment of her rival’s death, the moment when she drinks the poisoned drink (28) and the moment when her face contorts in agony as she is dying (39). This dramatic monologue is very erotic and sexual. The speaker is clearly small – she describes herself as a “minion”, a little thing – while her rivals sound taller more full-figured women (23–24, 32). At the end of the poem, even though she is paying the chemist handsomely for his illegal work, she offers to let the old man kiss her on the mouth, since she seems sexually excited by the prospect of murder and winning back her husband or lover.
In one sense, we judge this woman: she sounds deranged, so excited by the prospect of revenge that she has quite forgotten any moral norms. But then again, we think of the era: the corrupt world of the aristocracy in eighteenth-century France. In such a world this woman has little power. Her husband has simply gone off with someone else, leaving her, as he thinks, only able to go to church and pray for his soul (8). What can she do? She cannot challenge him in public. This is the kind of world in which women are supposed to accept that their husbands may have a mistress, or to accept that a lover may be promiscuous and unfaithful. It may remind us slightly of that rather horrible film Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In this corrupt atmosphere this woman is determined not to be done down, and she has decided on extreme action.
Browning’s poem anticipates the aesthetic sense of the Pre-Raphaelite painters later in the century, and indeed Rossetti and others loved these early Browning poems because of their fine visual sense. We can really imagine the scene: the young, small, beautiful woman, wearing the glass mask, while the old man works with his phials and mortars creating the deadly poison.
The rhythm of the poem is interesting. There is a strong dactylic beat, i.e. a strong stress followed by two weak stresses. This gives an energetic and intense movement to the verse, that creates the woman’s highly excited state of mind. Take the rhythm in stanza 4 for example:
/ ˘˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ /
/ ˘˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ /
˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ /
/ ˘˘ / ˘˘ / ˘˘ /
Set up a debate about the morality of the poem. The woman is to blame for her actions, in one sense, but what about her husband and these other women, and the way she is being treated? What about her powerlessness, the complete breakdown of her autonomy and dignity?
See Rossetti’s painting inspired by the poem. You can find it on a Google image search on the Web by putting in “Rossetti” and “Laboratory”. What do you think is good about the painting? Is there anything you would change?
Compare the speaker’s voice in this poem with the way voice is created in other poems. In “Ulysses”, for example, the graceful, slow-moving pentameter lines give us Ulysses in old age, a grand old warrior contemplating one more adventure. In “The Man He Killed” Hardy gives us a casual, off-hand speaking voice, just a conversation overheard in a pub. How different to those rhythms is the voice of the woman here, caught in that dactylic tread – so excited and fast-moving, embittered, quick-thinking, flirtatious.