April 04, 2004

Your Semitic Guess is As Good As Mine

There was a cartoon in Punch once that showed a Victorian lady talking to a bookseller:

Lady: Give me another poet, I can't understand this Browning!
Bookseller: Praed?
Lady: Yes, but praying didn't help.

I was put in mind of this when I ran across the following lines from Browning's "Easter Day" in the course of looking to see how Semitic was used Victorian times:

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.

Does anybody the blogosphere have a clue what Browning might have meant by a "Semitic guess"? Neither that phrase nor for that matter "Jew's guess," "Jewish guess," etc. turns up elsewhere in any searches I've done in Victorian literature or in 19th-century books and newspapers, but it has the sound of an expression that Browning's readers would have recognized. If you have specific knowledge of the phrase, please drop me a line at nunberg-at-csli.stanford.edu

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 4, 2004 10:23 PM