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From “The Peasant Poet”, a poem by John Clare:

He loved the brook's soft sound,
The swallow swimming by.
He loved the daisy-covered ground,
The cloud-bedappled sky.
To him the dismal storm appeared
The very voice of God;
And when the evening rack [rock?] was reared
Stood Moses with his rod.
[...]

I wonder what is the meaning of evening rack here, and why does it bring up thoughts of Moses with his rod in the hero’s mind? The word rack has too many meanings and I'm at a loss here.

Note: I initially thought the word there is rack. But as FumbleFingers pointed out, the word is actually rock in the majority of the books (searchable online) containing the poem. That does not detract from the mysteriousness of the sentence though.

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1  
I don't know if this helps you (I don't know which is right, or what rack/rock might mean here), but you might wish to note that Google Books has 46 hits for "evening rock was reared", compared to only 6 for "evening rack was reared" The reference to Moses' rod presumably has something to do with snakes - but again, I don't know what. It all looks a lot like Lit. Crit. to me. –  FumbleFingers Mar 11 at 17:35
    
Thank you, FumbleFingers! It's also interesting that the word 'evening' is for some reason capitalized - 'Evening' - in some of these editions. –  CopperKettle Mar 11 at 17:47
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Further evidence that Google Books hits prove nothing. As Barrie explains below, "rack" is correct. –  fdb Mar 11 at 18:28

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

A rack is a wisp of cloud or mist, so the line means 'when the evening mist had lifted'.

Shakespeare uses rack in ‘The Tempest’, where he has Prospero say:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind.

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Oh, so it is not some farming implement after all! Thanks, Barrie! Could it be a tall, towering evening cloud? It was 'reared' - and a tall cloud might remind Moses, a towering figure. –  CopperKettle Mar 11 at 17:20
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Perhaps. The two relevant definitions in the OED are 'a mass of cloud moving quickly, esp. above lower clouds; a mass of such cloud' and 'a bank of cloud, fog, or mist; a wisp of cloud or vapour. Also as a mass noun: mist, fog; sea spray.' –  Barrie England Mar 11 at 17:22

I have no access to the current standard edition of Clare's poetry (Robinson and Summerfield, 1964), which might have much of interest to say on this point; but it appears impossible to know whether Clare wrote rack or rock. The poem exists only in transcripts made by W.F. Knight, the house steward of the asylum where Clare was confined, who wrote that they were “faithfully transcribed to the best of my knowledge from the pencil originals many of which were so obliterated that without refering [sic] to the Author I could not decipher” and that “whenever I have wished him to correct a single stanza he has ever shewn the greatest disinclination to take in hand what to him seems a great task.”

On the face of it, rack would seem the obvious reading, for I find it difficult to conceive what an Evening rock might be, and the meaning Barrie England cites from OED, ‘a mass of cloud moving quickly, esp. above lower clouds’ suits very nicely with the preceding reference to the dismal storm.

But the principle of lectio difficilior suggests we look at this more closely. Clare was deeply read in the Bible, and the allusion to Moses’ rod surely points to the story told in Numbers 20:11-12:

11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.

12 And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.

Moses’ rod is also the instrument by which Moses defeated Pharaoh’s wizards and summoned the plagues and parted the Red Sea, freeing the Children of Israel from bondage.

It is hard not to think that in this transparently autobiographical poem Clare sees Moses as himself and the rod as his poetry: the source at once of his liberating vision and of the madness which excluded him from society and from free enjoyment of God’s creation.

But I’m afraid that gets us no closer to resolving the rock/rack crux. Perhaps we are not called upon to choose—perhaps Clare is balancing on a tightrope between them. He may even have a third sense in mind: the rack as an instrument of torture, employed to compel speech ...


OED 1, incidentally, defines it as ‘Clouds, or a mass of cloud, driven before the wind in the upper air’, which is even more appropriate. And it gives, too, an obsolete sense ‘A rush of wind; a gale, a storm’.

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From Wiktionary:

rack
Thin, flying, broken clouds, or any portion of floating vapour in the sky.

It can also be spelled wrack, as in my favorite example from The Return of the King:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

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