"Semitic guess"

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Tue Apr 13 14:25:20 UTC 2004

I offer a different guess on Browning's "Semitic guess." First, please note
that the original post included a line that I think is not from this
poem, "Easter Day."

"So, I would rest content / At him...." should read
"While just the other who most laughs / At him...."

The passage end, again (ll. 168-170):
"...for the sake
Of giving a Semitic guess,
Or playing pawns at blindfold chess."

The 1981 "Complete Works" 5: 103 notes that a manuscript has "a Semitic" "over
illegible erasure." (Misspelling or a different image?) This is the only time
the word appears in Browning's poems.

By the way, Martin F.J. Baasten has an excellent article "A Note on the
History of 'Semitic'" that clarifies the passage from a tribal term also to a
later linguistic term. That's in Hamlet on a Hill... [T. Muraoka Festschrift],
Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 118; Leuven: Peeters, 2003, 57-72. For a
preliminary draft of the article see
4th message down.

In context, Browning's speaker here has been considering arcane [whole nine
yards? Essenes?], even eccentric pursuits, of which playing chess blindfolded
is an example. This memory feat reminds me of the story often attached to one
or another Talmud prodigy, or ilui, of someone sticking a pin into a printed
page of the Talmud and declaring what word or perhaps even letter it pierced
on the other side. Hence, possibly, "a Semitic guess."

Stephen Goranson

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