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The Laboratory

The Laboratory

by Robert Browning

The Phial

Symbol Analysis

On the one hand, this is just another thing lying around the laboratory. On the other hand, nothing in this poem seems really innocent, and we can sort of imagine this "phial" pulsing with an evil, hypnotic glow. Browning spends a lot of time on little details in this poem, especially tiny objects like bottles and baskets and pills that hide a deadly secret.

  • Line 15: The mysterious way that Browning introduces the phial really draws your attention to it. There's maybe a little moment of confusion as we try to figure out what the speaker means by calling it "soft." Then we realize she must be talking about its "exquisite blue" color. We think there's something almost magical about the description that fits really well with the atmosphere of grimy grinding and bubbling brewing.
  • Line 26: That same phial pulls our attention back one more time. When this (sort of picky) lady decides she doesn't like the color of the poison the old man makes her, she tells him she wants it to be more like whatever is in the phial. This time, she calls it "enticing and dim." It's like the speaker wants her victims to be as enchanted by the poison in the phial as she so obviously is. See, this is what's so great about this poem. At first we might think this phial is just kind of a throwaway image, but by describing it in so many ways, Browning manages to make it rich and strange and enchanting.

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