Introduction to the poem.
This piece, like My Last Duchess, is about a person who kills (or is about to kill) her rival, in the presence of her lover - who appears to be connected to the speaker in some way - perhaps her husband or an ex-lover who has spurned her for the rival who is soon to die.
The subtitle ANCIEN RÉGIME refers to an older form of rule or government - suggesting that the speaker comes from a past age.
We do not know for certain that the speaker is female - but this is suggested by the things, listed in the fifth stanza, in which she will carry her poison an earring, a casket, a fan-mount, a filigree basket, and by her offering a kiss to the poisoner, when he has finished his work.
The poem recalls the saying that "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned". Browning explores the jealousy and vengefulness of someone disappointed in love.
Poem in detail.
The poem in detail
The poem opens with the speaker's putting on a mask, so she can see, the old man at work. She is curious, wondering which is "the poison" either which is the best one for the job, or which is the one the old man has chosen.
She speaks of "her" - we assume that this is a rival. The second stanza suggests this more strongly, as we learn that "he" "is with her" and that they know that I know", where they are and what they are doing.
They think she is miserable because of their scorn and has gone to pray in a church whereas she is angry and vengeful.
The jealous speaker finds more pleasure, she says, in watching the old poisoner at work, than in being at the royal court where men wait on her.
And she expresses her curiosity by asking about the poisonous substances like the gum in the "mortar". She asks about the small glass container (phial) and notes the beautiful colour of the deadly liquid in it.
The speaker has begun with a specific purpose - of poisoning one person
But now she indulges in a fantasy of carrying many different poisons, and giving them out liberally - perhaps at the court, where she imagines killing two women (named as Pauline and Elise).
We assume that neither of these is her real intended victim, since this woman is never named elsewhere but always identified by the pronouns "she" and "her". (Maybe the man whose attentions now fall on the rival has also favoured Pauline and Elise at some time.)
When the poison is ready, the speaker seems disappointed
first, that it is not as bright as the blue liquid in the phial, and
second, that the dose is too little for such a powerful character, who ensnares men and has a "magnificent" control over the sex.
The speaker reveals that she has tried to face up to her rival conventionally, but without effect. And now she thinks, too, that she wants her victim to suffer and the lover to "remember her dying face".
She wants also to remove the mask, once there is no danger to her, so that she can see closely the "delicate droplet" the poisoner has prepared.
The poem ends with an invitation to the old poisoner to kiss the jealous client - though with a sudden afterthought, that first she should brush off the dust that has settled on her, in case this inadvertently kills her.
As with My Last Duchess, we form a vivid sense of the speaker, but it is not always clear and we have less clear ideas about anyone else here.
We see something of the old man at work, and sense his greed for gain, as he helps himself to the client's jewels and gold.
We also the speaker's view of "her" - the rival, a scornful and manipulative woman, who seems not to care for, or worry about, whatever the rejected "minion" might do to retaliate. And there are even fewer details about "him" - the man who prefers the rival.
But we do not trust that these people are exactly as the speaker presents them.
She shows something of herself - she appears to be wealthy and mixes in the highest society.
But she is very different from the Duke of Ferrara, who merely speaks a word, and silences his wife forever.
This character is personally weak - unable to use her position or forceful speech to change her situation. She does not use open enmity - yet resorts to stealth.
She cannot keep a man's love, but almost flirts with the old man who mixes the poison - she offers him a kiss, as if she were voluptuous and desirable, but we know that she cannot compete with her rival.
When she calls herself "little" and a "minion", she perhaps tries to show what others think of her.
The poets method
The poem is written in twelve stanzas, all of four lines, rhymed AABB. The metre is anapaestic (two unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed one) - and this creates a rather jaunty effect, which seems unsuited to the poem's subject, if we take it too seriously.
But Browning intends the poem to be perhaps almost comic, over the top and melodramatic - it has some of the qualities of a popular horror film, where the characters and situations are grotesque and outrageous.
This rollicking, lively effect is reinforced by the frequent alliteration - "moisten and mash...pound at thy powder". The use of the powder of three gives the speaker a witchlike impression as witches chants are in verses of three. This correlates with our view of her and the actions in which she is partaking.
The poem is also a monologue, which places emphasis on the silent listener.
Browning repeatedly points up the contrast between the luxury and opulence of the court and the grimness of the laboratory. At the same time, the speaker makes a comparison between conventional jewels that adorn the person, and the idea of special jewellery to hold deadly poisons - "an earring, a casket...a filigree basket". Perhaps Browning expects the reader to make the connection between the evil of the poison in the jewels and the idea that ordinary wealth (gold) is the root of all evils.
He revels in an exotic vocabulary (a special lexicon) both of the poison laboratory and of precious jewels - "mortar", "gum", "gold oozings", "phial", "lozenge" and "pastile".
There is also some incongruity between the formal politeness of the speaker, saying "prithee", and the grim nature of her request.
The poem will appeal to contemporary readers with its gothic qualities - we find these, before Browning, in prose fiction like the English gothic novel and the American gothic of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, which depict sick or unbalanced characters, often without passing a judgement.
Nowadays we are used to novels and films that show us these abnormal mental states. The speaker in the poem would be more disturbing if we took her more seriously. And Browning also contrives the situation so that we care little for her intended victim - the revenge may be excessive, but "she" seems to invite some such violent punishment.
The Laboratory does not fit modern ideas about Victorian values - which are usually depicted as virtuous, and concerned with happy family relationships.
Browning, whose home life with his wife was mostly very happy, is careful to set his more extreme poems in past times and civilizations (he does so, for instance, in My Last Duchess and other pieces like Porphyria's Lover and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came).
We are used, perhaps, to poetry that presents good or healthy emotions, such as romantic love or the grief of a parent. But we may be less comfortable with a poem like this one, that seems sick and tasteless in its choice of subject and the way Browning develops it.
(Both the Italian poet Dante and the English poet John Milton test these limits: Dante describes various damned spirits in Hell, while Milton presents the thoughts of Satan. In practice, Dante's wicked men and women are far more horrible, in thought and deed, than Milton's Devil.)