In Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the character Romney Leigh has a “pattern on his nail”:

To think,—I have a pattern on my nail,
And I will carve the world new after it,
And solve so, these hard social questions,—nay,
Impossible social questions,—since their roots
Strike deep in Evil’s own existence here,
Which God permits because the question’s hard
To abolish evil nor attaint free-will.
Ay, hard to God, but not to Romney Leigh!
For Romney has a pattern on his nail,
(Whatever may be lacking on the Mount)
And not being overnice to separate
What’s element from what’s convention, hastes
By line on line, to draw you out a world,
Without your help indeed, unless you take
His yoke upon you and will learn of him,—
So much he has to teach! so good a world!

Book VIII, lines 760–775.

            The man here, once so arrogant
And restless, so ambitious, for his part,
Of dealing with statistically packed
Disorders, (from a pattern on his nail,)
And packing such things quite another way,—
Is now contented.

Book IX, lines 585–590.

The import of the phrase seems reasonably clear in context: the “pattern” is Romney’s ambitious scheme for social reform, his “phalanstery” and so on. But why is the pattern “on his nail”?

The Oxford University Press edition glosses the phrase like this:

God gave Moses exact directions for the making of the tabernacle on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25), as in a pattern for a building to nail to a wall.

Josie Billington & Philip Davis, eds. (2014). Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 549. Oxford University Press.

But this does not convince me: Exodus 25 has a “pattern” but no mention of a “nail”, and it seems a stretch to take “pattern on his nail” to mean “blueprint that he might nail to a wall”. Is there a better explanation?

  • 1
    I don't think it would mean "blueprint that he might nail to a wall," it would mean "blueprint that he has hung from a nail hammered into the wall."
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 9 at 12:55

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