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The Laboratory and My Last Duchess

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The poems “The Laboratory” and “My Last Duchess” written by Robert Browning in 1845 are both set in different periods and places in history and of even different cultures, yet both tell a story of the destructive effect harmful emotions can have. These emotions of jealousy and greed, mixed with power and wealth make suspicion and a fascination with murder, inevitable.

“My Last Duchess” is set in Ferrara in 16th century Italy at the time of the Renaissance; the poem reflects the popularity at the time of the love of art and the duke reflects this perfectly : That’s My Last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive. I call That piece a wonder now: Fra Pandolf’s hands Worked busily a day, and there she stands”. The Duke of Ferrara expresses his love of art by name dropping a famous artist of the time, and boasting of how it was done quickly, it also serves as a preview of his nature which we learn more about as the Dramatic Monologue progresses.

We learn quickly that the Duke is showing someone around his private art gallery, and while at first we don’t know who the listener is , we know he must be of some importance or he has an aim of some importance because the Duke exclaims that he doesn’t allow just anyone to view the painting of ‘his’ last Duchess: “(Since no one puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I)”.

“The Laboratory” is set in pre revolutionary France, a time where the people had an obsession or fixation with poison and the courtier shows her interest almost immediately in the poem, the sixth line being Which is the poison to poison her, prithee? She then in the next stanza reveals her motive for wanting the poison by stating that ‘he is with her’ and they don’t care where she is or what she is up to. She thinks they think she is crying at her loss, laughing at her for praying in church, then exclaims proudly ” – I am here”. It is apparent that she is excl aiming it proudly because it is on its own line. The ghostly cave-like atmosphere helps to reflect this: “These faint smokes curling whitely”

The courtier also uses the metaphor ‘devil’s-smithy’ to describe the eerie setting. This can be compared to ‘My Last Duchess’ where the atmosphere is even more eerie even without the descriptions of a sinister alchemists, with thick white smoke, as the duke is showing a count’s messenger around his private art gallery, which in itself seems rich and glamorous, while the painting he is presenting of his former wife isn’t, because although the painting seems great and the duke is impressed with it, the fact that he prefers the painting to the person makes it all the more sinister.

Robert Browning uses the Duke’s arrogant persona to convey why he prefers the painting to the memory of her. The Duke comes across as arrogant from the start of the poem, even before the poem starts in fact, the title containing the possessive pronoun ‘My’ suggesting he thinks of the Duchess as his possession. In contrast to this in ‘The Laboratory’ the Courtier seems to have a victim complex as she states that “she’s not little, no minion like me! “, again “like me” is on its own line, emphasising the point.

She also uses many personal pronouns early in the poem, the second stanza: my tears flow…… laugh at me, at me fled…. I am here” The Duke’s egotistical behaviour in ‘My Last Duchess’ is also shown through the format of the dramatic monologue, it is all one stanza , which suggests that he will say all he has to say without giving anyone a chance to interrupt.

The poem is carefully rhymed in a way that the rhyming couplets aren’t noticed in the rhythm of the poem as the use of enjambament prevents the reader from pausing at the end of the end to emphasize the rhyme, for example: The bough of cherries some officious fool Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule She rode with round the terrace – all and each Would draw from her alike the approving speech,” The Laboratory however, is set out in separate short stanzas with many words each on their own line. This conveys her rush and eager attitude towards obtaining the poison which is conveyed through the many exclamation marks Browning uses to draw attention to this.

This also increases as she becomes more and more thrilled with the idea of poisoning ‘her’ as she starts to fantasise what it would be like to watch her drinking the poison, disguised by the imagery of attractive colours, by the last stanza a single word or phrase it on separate line every second line: “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”

In contrast to this Browning makes the Duke seems cold, as he does the Courtier, however in a more subtle way that also reflect the duke’s arrogant, unimaginative and businesslike attitude by the lack of imagery used which would make the Duke seem more approachable. The Courtier seems cold in the blatant way that she is plotting to poison someone and makes the reader aware of it from the very start, whereas the Duke tries to make himself seem more approachable by the use of hesitations and parenthesis, making his speech seem more natural: Even had you skill In speech – (which I have not)” However this seems false, also the use of false modesty in this quote.

The Duke tells the listener he had killed his former Duchess in a subtle way “I gave commands and all smiles stopped”. Browning successfully uses the form, vocabulary and imagery of both poems to suit the characters involved in it. Both dramatic monologues are about murder however in the Lab oratory the woman thinks she is killing for a reason and in “My Last Duchess” he kills because he doesn’t think he needs a reason.

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