"Semitic guess"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Apr 14 04:45:06 UTC 2004

This hypothesis sounds strained, but why not? Browning was intensely
interested in Hebrew language and literature and had many friends in
the Jewish community of London (it was frequently rumored that he was
Jewish, in fact). So he could have heard a tale like this from
someone -- though in that case, why not "Talmudic guess"? Could that
have been the word he rubbed out?

(The beginning line of the passage I quoted is in fact from "Easter
Day," but earlier on -- I bungled an ellipsis in truncating a longer
version of the passage.)

Geoff Nunberg

>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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