"Semitic guess"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Apr 11 16:01:19 UTC 2004

I got some help on this one from Chip Tucker, a Victorianist at UVa.
According to a note in Ian Jack et al.'s 1991 Oxford edition of
Browning, the phrase evokes "a hypothesis about some difficult point
in Hebrew, or some other Semitic language," and a note in the Yale
Poets edition more-or-less concurs -- hence, I suppose, it's a
conjecture about some obscure philological nicety. Even given
Browning's demonstrated interest in philology, it sounds a little
far-fetched, but then so do the explanations of a lot of Browning's
references -- it's Semitic guesses all the way down.

Geoff Nunberg

>The following passage is from Browning's "Sordello, Strafford,
>Christmas-eve and Easter-day" (1864). Does anybody have any idea
>what a "Semitic guess" was, or whether it was a generally used
>expression? I haven't been able to find other hits for the phrase.
>Geoff Nunberg
>So, I would rest content
>At him, above all epitaphs
>Aspires to have his tomb describe
>Himself as Sole among the tribe
>Of snuff-box-fanciers, who possessed
>A Grignon with the Regent's crest.
>So that, subduing, as you want,
>Whatever stands predominant
>Among my earthly appetites
>For tastes, and smells, and sounds, and sights,
>I shall be doing that alone,
>To gain a palm-branch and a throne,
>Which fifty people undertake
>To do, and gladly, for the sake
>Of giving a Semitic guess,
>Or playing pawns at blindfold chess.

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