The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Browning’s Error

May 7th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Today is Robert Browning’s birthday.  If he were alive today, that beard of his would be even longer.

I suspect few read him today; I don’t know the statistics.  If so, it’s a pity.  I cracked him open not long ago to examine his portrait of a spiritualist, “Mr. Sludge the Medium,” and have been reading him with pleasure ever since.  Believe me, he’s full of surprises.

And few surprises are more surprising than his famous error in “Pippa Passes.”  I wanted to celebrate it here: what could be more ullagistic than a boner from a now-neglected poet?  I thought it most fitting to couch it in verse.

Come shed a tear for Robert Browning,
The butt of countless students’ clowning,
The laughingstock of English classes.
For in his drama, “Pippa Passes,”
He made a choice that wasn’t clever,
And marred his masterwork forever.
If you will fetch your dusty copy,
I’ll show you where old Bob got sloppy.
It’s near the Epilogue’s conclusion,
Line ninety-six.  See his confusion?
That’s not the word that he was after;
It’s bound to raise our ribald laughter.
What happened?  This is so unlike him.
Did rashness or impatience strike him,
As he sped toward that final curtain?
Was he too hasty to make certain?
Was he so fixed upon his mission
He couldn’t check the definition?
So pleased with his vocabulary
He scorned the humble dictionary?
He read, in some old seldom-read piece
A word, and said, “That means nun’s headpiece.”
But no, it’s not a nun’s regalia;
It means “the female genitalia.”
No nun’s brow bore a “twat” as bonnet;
Now his has “twit” emblazoned on it
Forevermore.  Till life’s last flicker,
We’ll read that line, and we will snicker.
So shed a tear for Robert Browning,
A poet reckless with his nouning.

(Posted by Doug Skinner.  Careful with those candles, R.B.)

Tags: Literature · Misconceptions

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mamie // May 14, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Poor Bob!

  • 2 Lisa // May 26, 2009 at 9:50 am

    We never covered that one in school. Too bad, I would have liked Browning a lot more. (Make a note of this, English professors!)

    I wonder how many other famous poets are guilty of such malapropisms – there must be a dissertation in that!

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