by Robert Browning
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
- We jump right into the action here, as the speaker is tying a mask onto her face.
- We can't tell much about what is going on yet, except that the speaker is talking to someone else, the person who owns the mask (she calls it "thy glass mask"). We can't even tell the speaker's gender yet.
- Somehow, though, this "I" seems important. A quick scan of the lines to come tells us that the whole poem is delivered in the first-person, as if the speaker was talking to someone else. We call that a dramatic monologue. It's a technique Browning used a lot. See our "Calling Card" and "Speaker" sections for more about that.
May gaze thro' these faint smokes curling whitely,
- Here we find out that the speaker's wearing the glass mask so they can see through some faint white smoke.
- Think of the mask as being like the safety goggles you're supposed to wear in chem class, just more poetic.
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil's-smithy—
- Okay, so the language in this poem takes a little getting used to. Instead of saying "as you do your job," our speaker says "as though pliest thy trade."
- Even to someone reading this when it first came out in 1844, that would have sounded old-fashioned. Browning is working hard to make this speaker's speech feel like it was spoken long ago.
- And that bit about the devil's smithy? Well, a smithy is where a black-smith works, but this guy is doing dirtier, more evil work than that—the kind of nastiness the devil himself might be involved with. Ruh-roh.
- Our speaker is using a devil's workshop as a metaphor for this laboratory.
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?
- The big reveal! Suddenly, Browning throws back the curtain, and we figure out what all this stuff with smoke and glass and the devil is really about. Poison! (Cue dramatic organ music.)
- Our speaker is looking to kill another woman, and asks the man they're talking to which poison would work the best. "Prithee," by the way, is an old fashioned word that basically means "please."
- See how the three main words in the sentence all start with a P (poison, poison, prithee)? That spiffy poetic technique is called alliteration, and Browning uses it quite a bit in this poem. For more on this technique, click on over to "Sound Check."