AQA 's Most Dangerous Poet: Robert Browning's The Laboratory.
If ever there was a delicious thriller tucked away in the GCSE reading list it is this poem! has an atmosphere that smokily insinuating and then finally intoxicating- and who survives to tell the tale I wonder? Voyeurism reigns !!
1) How far is the setting and ‘space’ that the protagonist (narrator) and her 'helper' occupy, a secret, illicit space? What sexual and moral boundaries or thresholds are being crossed in order to enter into this world? Why does the poem take place in a laboratory? What might this suggest about science and its status in the ‘Ancien regime’? Is the female a highly subversive figure in terms of her occupation and orientation? Think of comparisons with another charcter in a dimly lit, smoky 'tomb-like' room- Miss havisham in Dickens' Great Expectations and Carol Ann Duffy's revision in her 'Havisham' also in the anthology.
2) Look at the ‘veiling’ of the visual in the first stanza( through literal smoke and 'ignorance') and how shattering the verb ‘poison’ is-especially when it is repeated twice. Are we literally peering into another world? Does this ‘otherness’ or strangeness suggest transgression and immorality? And yet perversely excitement and furtive pleasure? Remember how initialy disorientated the female must be in such a male space and of course with her illicit intention.
3) How far does the use of repetition within the second stanza mirror the obsession of the speaker? ‘-I am here’ How dramatic is this irony? Why does the speaker take a breath’- before saying ‘I am here’? Are we aware of the ironic juxtaposition between the sacred and the profane? Does the rhyme scheme (AABB) encourage a sense of melodrama? And is this atmosphere necessary to the drama of the poem?
4) What type of relationship evolves between the watcher/watched or the spectacle/spectator? Again do we detect a marked interest in the spectacle in Browning? Who is the voyeur within the poem? Without the poem? ( Think about the role of the reader and where we are placed in terms of the poem’s activity)
5) Why does the ‘disciple’ or protagonist begin to invoke other possible victims? Is she rather like the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ in her enjoyment of power? How far do the ‘details’ surrounding the creation of the perfect poison lend themselves to excitement and even erotic pleasure? There is a palpable sense of momentum and this seems to 'arouse' the sense of teh protagonist as she realsies how expansively powerful the poison can be and how transformtive in terms of her own life.
6) Once again consider the similarities between this poem with its secret scenario and that of the ‘unveiling’ of the Duke’s terrible secret as well. Why can the Duke be so public about power whilst the woman in ‘The Laboratory’ has to be so furtive and hidden in her search for a means to power and agency? Is the speaker in ‘The Laboratory’ subverting any hierarchies of power in the poem?
7) The lexicon of the laboratory is suggestive and brilliantly manipulated by Browning to reveal the evolution of a murderer. Does this very specific choice of vocabulary make the visitor to the laboratory very real, despite her consistent anonymity in the poem? Why should the poet manipulate this idea of voice (lessness) do you think? Does she move from victimhood to assailant- and then ironically even back again?
8) If ‘The Laboratory ‘resembles ‘My Last Duchess’ in that it is preoccupied with death then it is also concerned with power. Interestingly this juxtaposition between death and power gives the poetry of Browning an erotic edge.Is this the subversive appeal of this poem?
9) Look at the horrible ambivalence of the mouth kiss at the end? Think about the relationship between fascination and repulsion and Browning’s awareness of thresholds and boundaries; in terms of ‘taste’ as well as space or place. Is Browning provoking the reader’s response through transgression? What is being transgressed in this kiss? Is she sexually aroused by the proximity of death and her role in it, even if the death might be her own as well? Is it her own proximity to death that makes her feel reckless and even liberated?
10) A final point. Is there any comedy in this poem and if so, from where does it emanate? Could you say that the comic makes the content dangerously enjoyable? And if so, does this suggest the ambivalence of the comic with regard to conventional morality?