In book VI of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Giuseppe Caponsacchi tries seducing two women of Arezzo with love-poetry, but he is disappointed with the results:
Sirs, ere the week was out,
I saw and said to myself “Light-skirts hides teeth
“Would make a dog sick,—the great dame shows spite
“Should drive a cat mad: ’t is but poor work this—
“Counting one’s fingers till the sonnet’s crowned.
“I doubt much if Marino really be
“A better bard than Dante after all.”
What is the meaning of the line in bold? Does ‘counting one’s fingers’ mean ‘counting on one’s fingers’? But if so, what is he counting? Lines of verse? Or does it mean something like ‘twiddling one’s thumbs’, that is, being idle and bored? Neither meaning appears in the entry for ‘count’ in the OED.
Update I think Peter Shor is right that Caponsacchi is counting syllables, but here are three citations for the ‘idle and bored’ meaning:
1825 Thomas Dick Lauder Lochandhu 118 with nothing to do but count one’s fingers.
1850 Esther Copley Cottage Comforts 206 they shall do it, while I sit still and count my fingers.
1855 Harriet Parr Gilbert Massenger 75 with nothing to do but count my fingers and remember Bible stories.