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The Laboratory

The Laboratory


by Robert Browning

Analysis: Sound Check

When we read it out loud (you know, in private—this is not a poem to recite on your city bus), we hear a nervous, jumpy rhythm in this poem. It sounds like the sound of footsteps as someone paces back and forth across a room, or drums her fingers on a table. Maybe we get that partly because the poor lady in this poem seems so worked up. But we also think that mood is woven into the sound of the words. It's part of what makes this such a successful poem. Check it out:

He is with her, and they know that I know
Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow

Notice how all the words in those two lines are really short? Only one of them ("believe") has more than one syllable. That has an effect on the rhythm. Try saying those lines in a really slow, dreamy voice. Doesn't work so well, does it? Now try it fast and clipped. Hear that? "[A]nd they know that I know." Tap-tap-tap, over and over again. Hear those fingers drumming? Reading this poem is like listening to someone who's had too much coffee. It's a kind of staccato sound (that's a word we love that just means abrupt and choppy).

We get that same feeling from another popular poetic trick, alliteration, that shows up a lot in this poem. We think the repetition of those first letters also helps to create that sharp, choppy sound, like here:

The delicate droplet, my whole fortune's fee— 

Can you hear that? "[D]elicate droplet"—Pop! Pop! It's like the rattle of a machine gun or someone banging too hard on a keyboard. The sound of this poem is likely to put you on edge.

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