Science in Literature: The Laboratory

In honour of British Science Week, we’ve been looking at where science and literature collide. While the two may seem poles apart, literature is in fact saturated with experiments, dissections, potions and ‘hocus pocus.’

Our first example is Robert Browning’s 1844 dramatic monologue ‘The Laboratory’, in which a woman addresses an apothecary as he mixes the poison with which she will kill her romantic rivals in the royal court. The speaker is based on Madame de Brinvilliers, a 17th Century French noblewoman, who poisoned many of her male relations. Incidentally, after being arrested, she claimed, ‘Half the people of quality are involved in this sort of thing, and I could ruin them if I were to talk.’

The Laboratory – Robert Browning

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?

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.

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,
Than go where men wait me and dance at the King’s.

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?

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!

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

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!

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.

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!

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!

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?

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!

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