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The Case of Edmund Rack.

 Topographical Descriptions.  John  Collinson, the Rector of Long-Ashton and Somerset’s Surveyors.   The Case of Edmund Rack: Quaker, Poet, Antiquarian.

By Tom Lowenstein.

THE HUNDRED OF CARHAMPTON [in which Culbone lies]is situated in the northwest part of the county, and is bounded on the north and northwest by the sea and on the west by the borders of Devonshire.

This mountainous tract may be called the Alps of Somersetshire; the whole country being a picturesque assemblage of lofty hills succeeding each other, with deep romantick vallies winding between them, in which most of the towns and villages are situated. The hills are principally sheep-walks; but in the western part many of them are so covered with heath, fern, and moss, as to afford little pasturage. The steep sides of most of them are either entirely vested, or patched with beautiful hanging woods, intermixed with projecting rugged rocks. The vallies are fruitful, and generally watered by small streams, running over rough rocky channels, and often interrupted by stony fragments fallen from the mountains.

– John Collinson, The History of Somersetshire, 1791.


WHAT HAPPINESS IT might have given me had the world of my poem belonged properly in Kubilai’s empire! And yet how misguided. For what could I touch of Shang-du and the gorges, mazings, rivers, gardens, pastures I’d imagined? But all I can claim is that I stretched my verses, in their flexible ductility, across that chasm separating Culbone Wood from Xanadu.

Here then, in this parish, is my proper station – almost new to me as Xanadu, albeit closer – and at a damp end of the rainbow bridge which reached me back, estranged or de-ranged, many unfamiliar centuries.

And my theme lies, indeed, in this domesticated situation:  for my rhyming was engendered not in Shang-du or Serinde, but rather arose from this home-spun region.  For while in my dream, I travelled to Cathay, my poem belonged finally and first in Somerset’s  Carhampton Hundred.  And why, afterall, should I shog off this little parish at the west end of our county on some pretension I had travelled eastward – when most I knew of that horizon was what I’d read in Purchas, Marco and some little passages of Sanskrit?

Let me then quote from two publications that have come to hand, both written near the time of my own visit. First, from Rev. Collinson’s Somerset History and Antiquities. This followed by the Greenwoods, County Surveyors, who delineated Somerset.

Of Culbone, or Kitnor, Collinson writes:

A very small parish on the sea coast, nine miles west from the town of Minehead, containing only nine houses and fifty inhabitants.  The lands consist of eighty acres of arable, and two hundred acres of pasture and furze-brake, the rest is wood.

The ancient appellation of this parish is Kytenore or Kitnore; that of Culbone having obtained in later times, from the saint to whom its church is dedicated.  The Norman survey calls it Chetemore, and thus describes it:

in the time of king Edward it gelded for one hide, and one virgate. The arable is two carucates.  There are two villanes, and one cottager, and one servant with one plough, and fifty acres of pasture, and one hundred acres of wood.  It is worth fifteen shillings.

The church is a small Gothick building, thirty-four feet long, and twelve feet wide, consisting of a single aisle, chancel, and porch, covered with Cornish tiles.  The situation of this church is singularly romantick; it stands in a little narrow cove, about four hundred feet above the level of the water.  On each side of this cove the hills rise almost perpendicularly more than twelve hundred feet high.  That on the west side is conical, and considerably higher.

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The back of the cove is a noble amphitheatre of steep hills and rocks, which rise near six hundred feet above the church, and are covered with coppice woods to the tops.  The trees that compose these vast plantations, set by the hand of nature, are oaks, beech, mountain ash, poplars, pines and firs, mingled together in the most wanton variety.  At the back ground of this cove, through a steep narrow winding glen, a fine rivulet rushes down a narrow rocky channel overhung with wood, and passing by the church, forms a succession of cascades in its descent down the rocks into the sea.The spot is as truly romantick as any perhaps which the kingdom can exhibit.  The magnitude, height, and grandeur of the hills, rocks, and woods, at the back and on each side of the cove; the solemnity of the surrounding scene; the sound of the rivulet roaring down its craggy channel; the steep impassable descent from the church down to the beach; the dashing of the waves on a rough and stony shore at an awful distance below; the extent of the channel, and finely varied coast and mountains of Wales beyond it; form a scene peculiarly adapted to strike the mind with pleasure and astonishment.

The parish cannot be approached on horseback without great difficulty, and even danger; the road from Porlock being only a path about two feet wide, winding in a zigzag direction along the slope of the hills, and often interrupted by large loose stones and roots of trees.  The woods abound in whortleberries, and a variety of fine polybodies, lichen, and other mosses, among which is some of the yellow rein-deer moss, very bright and scarce.  There are also some rare plants; and many wild deer, foxes, badgers, and martin cats, inhabit these woods.

During the three winter months the sun is never seen here; being entirely hid by the height of the surrounding hills.

In complement to Collinson, here is the Greenwoods’ succinct description:

…a very small parish, in Carhampton hundred, 3 miles WNW from Porlock; containing 10 inhabited houses, and 11 families, 6 of whom are employed in agriculture.  This parish is environed on every side by mountains, which rise so high as to render the sun invisible nearly three months in the year, and for the same reason it is not possible to approach it on horseback without danger. The church is a neat Gothic building situated in a narrow cove, surrounded with hills, ascending almost perpendicular to the height of 1200 feet, and covered with oaks, beech, ash, poplars, pines and firs, mingled together by the hand of nature in the most picturesque manner; a beautiful rivulet rushes through a narrow channel in the interior of this cove, and passing the church, forms a succession of cascades as it flows down the rocks into the sea.

Such are the environs – bar poplarsto which I will not swear. And while to the Greenwoods this location’s picturesque, Collinson maintains it’s noble and romantick – tempting to readers of a walking habit.

But in his Preface, Collinson gives something extraHere, as prelude to his thirteen hundred pages, he sketches how a knowledge of Provincial History contributes to an understanding of our nation and shared human nature.

Now here’s a purpose which is altruistic (and hieratic!), with part of which I am in sympathy.  For it’s Collinson’s aim to nurture amor patriae.  ‘We cannot love’, he writes (or preaches), ‘that with which we are unacquainted.’  And as love augments with knowledge, so we better comprehend, with respect to our county, ‘works of Providence.  By intuition of these, the mind exults in pursuing the Deity.’

With intuition I am in concurrence. This – in that it joins a person to the object of his contemplation – enobles that in us conjoins itself to what it witnesses in Nature.

The coincident details in Collinson are clear. Mingled (he writes) in the most wanton variety are grand rocks and woods and a craggy channel, dashing waves and an awful distance. All these heightened by secluded situation, echoes of previous habitation and the drama of its place between the mountains and the ocean.  (What better stage could Wanderers in execution of a Nachtlied wish as stimulus to the imagination? )

But did the Reverend’s mind ‘exult’, with pleasure and astonishment, in Culbone’s grandeur? Can rapture, after all – along with whortleberries and tiles and all the woodland species that he itemises – be classed as topographic information: as though the landscape, itself, were provisioned with the therewithal or substance of a visitor’s reaction to it and thus offered it to all who walked there to receive it equally?

Following this question, I am tempted to surmise the Reverend’s rapture, not unlike the information that he lays before us, is somehow borrowed: and that Collinson expresses not what he had felt and witnessed, but was copying, instead, a style of writing – of the sort presented by ‘pretenders who impose with an affectation of sensibility.’ (This from Edmund Rack – about whom more later.) Which leads one to suspect that Collinson had never been to Culbone, nor in many places like it.1

Still, Collinson’s in sympathy with the sublime.  It’s to his taste – in moderation.  And while he stands as mere spectator to those forms that might, were he receptive, rouse his passion, for me, because the chasm, crag and channel harmonise with what I’ve witnessed – and extremes of feeling thus excited – my impulseis to echo and reply, expand and imitate what nature sings, and so I chant back to her what she’s told me.

The cascade rushes at some distance from the Reverend eye.
The same torrent bursts into my heart – and conturbat me.

On Edmund Rack: Who was at Culbone fifteen years before me. (And whose Dome and Subterranean Rivers anticipated those I cultivated in the Great Khan’s Garden.)

NOW FROM IDLE reading I have stumbled on a page substantiates the Reverend’s distance I’d suspected.  Thus a magazine reviewer of his History and Antiquities:

After several endeavours to form a topography of this County, the task has fallen to a Reverend gentleman, who has not in the ten years since his proposals appeared in 1781 been able to give such an account of it as becomes the duty of a county historian in this improved aerea of topographical research.

‘Mr Collinson,’ he continues, ‘is a mere compiler from printed books,’ (here I think of Samuel Purchas!) ‘borrowing even his description of seats and grounds from Arthur Young, that universal tourist. Careless of authorities, or unknowing how to use them, almost all he advances rests on books or his assertions.’

–The Gentleman’s Magazine of ’93

But no. It was not all exactly so. Behind his page there lay another hand – once sensitive, now cold – which Collinson refers to briefly in his Preface:

The Topographical part of the work rests on inquiries made in many successive years by my late friend Mr. Edmund Rack, to whose assiduity I pay this merited acknowledgement.

Initially, perhaps, this mention appears forthright, generous even.  On closer reading, it’s indifferent. Buried in the Preface, Rack’s presence counts for nothing.  He’s the ghost in the corpus.  Once he has done service, this Norfolk weaver’s son (who’d made his living as a dyer), is penned up in a sentence. The book’s proclaimed author is a Church Patrician.  While Rack exits, once he’d briefly entered, like a footman, in a single movement.2

Now it’s not my intention to colly (blacken!) Collinson, who died in ’93, mortified perhaps by his reviewer.  But my curiosity was roused concerning Rack’s place in these volumes. And more important, who it was had walked at Culbone and descanted on romance, astonishment and exultation. So, when next in Bath, I sought out Rack’s surviving papers.

I’ve said I won’t dishonour Collinson.  He died aged thirty-six, just two years after Somerset was published.  (‘We tremble,’ frowned his critic, ‘for the fate of Wilts. which Collinsonannounces as preparing!’)

But I confess to a shock when I visited the rooms where Rack’s notes, brought there from Long-Ashton, were laid open to me.  For the very first page revealed, verbatim, that account of Carhampton, with its Alps of Somerset, I’ve quoted.

Alas. Those paragraphs that Collinson presents as his are reproduced from Rack exactly – who wrote them as he toured, alone and on foot, exposed to all weathers, suffocated by a cough – that terribly shook his poor, thin chest – the travelling exacerbated.  This, in ’87, killed him.

Now I won’t make Rack a martyr entirely.  His experience of commerce was a fuel to the business. From home in Bath and from the field, Rack’s was the organising genius of the topographic enterprise.

But this pious tradesman also entertained a literary ambition. He joined the Beaux Esprits who attended Lady Anna Miller at Bath-easton to write verses which were printed as Poetical Amusements –  ‘follies’ wrote Walpole which were artificial flowersIn parallel, Rack was also taken up by Catherine Graham, republican and scholar whose History of England Walpole recommended for its ‘strength and gravity.’

These patrons were well suited to the temper ofRack’s several interests. Though Catherine’s brother James, the celebrated Master Quack, pressed Rack to maintain falsely that James Graham cured the ‘cough and asthma’ which had driven him to Bath from Norfolk.3

Established in Bath, Rack published a substantial book of Essays.  This, intermixed with verses in accomplished couplets, was printed the year he set out on his topographical researches.

NOW HERE’S THE enigma. With reputation high but his health in decline (he often writes that he is ‘poorly’), how was it that Rack, in his late middle years, should embark on such a walk until his demise in ‘87, albeit intermittently, through a hilly and extensive country?

I have read through Rack’s letters. These offer something of an answer. For in ’80, Rack complains he has been disappointed by a partner at his dye-works and has lost his savings.  Smollett, in a passage written just when Rack removed to Bath, outlines (from his own experience) the nature of this situation:

‘About a dozen years ago,’ (wrote Smollett, who was also dying), ‘many decent families, restricted to small fortunes, besides those that came hither on the score of health, were tempted to settle in Bath, where they could live comfortably… at a small expense; but the madness of the times has made the place too hot for them, and they are now obliged to think of other migrations.  Some have already fled to the mountains of Wales, and others have retired to Exeter.’

Thus Squire Bramble in Humphry Clinker. And so, like many of those decent families, Rack left on his perambulation. Armed with Bowen’s Improved Map and with a ‘Welch poney’ he acquired in Taunton, he travelled the county and surveyed every parish, its landscape, natural history, populations, agricultural practices and its architectural features.  He subsisted on subscriptions he extracted from the gentlemen he interviewed on their estates and farming practice.

And oh, were his shade to enter James’ Parade today and wander through the pages Collinson collated, he would recognise a book that he, in flesh and blood, had written!

WE SHALL RETURN to Rack in Quaker character – when he’s arrived at Culbone and stands by the cataract, alive with his pen and stammering in admiration. But first, Rack leads me, and I follow willingly, to digress into a realm where he sings as poet.

I have mentioned Rack’s walk with his pony and map. But in between a youth among the weaving people and his present solitude, Rack had schooled himself in poetry. And in a brace of poems, The Cell of Contemplation and his Temple of Fancy (A VISION in Two Cantos) which were printed at Bath with his book of Essays, he  transcends the bagatelles he’d improvised at Lady Miller’s, and voyages through visionary landscapes, as seized (in each) by sleep, he enters, with a lassitude unwonted in a Quaker, rhapsodically imagined faery regions. Here in his VISION, which Rack had composed by 1780:

With heat oppressed, a sylvan shade I sought,
The seat of peace, of solitude, and thought.

Mute was the grove, he writes, save where the murmuring bees
And droning insects hovered in the trees.
Lulled by their sound, all indolent, I lay,
To  Sleep, who waved his poppies round, a prey.

Now, as Sleep from (metaphoric) poppy overwhelms the dreamer’s faculties, his senses, which before were unified, are sundered and imaginationis unleashed to wander:

[Sleep’s] fascinating power each sense confined,
But free remained the ever-active mind.
Imagination still her sway maintained,
And roved aloft, with pinions unrestrained –

Now the Poet, become Seer – as though voyaging through Galileo’s optic tube!descries a new world beyond earthly gaze:

There, far above the ken of mortal eye,
Full in its blaze, a radiant planet lies,
By poets yet unsung, though here resides
The power who o’er their sweetest lays presides.

Unbound imagination, and what draws imagination to it – these reciprocate:

To this gay region of perpetual spring,
Some power unseen directs my towering wing.

Besides Godfrey’s Court of Fancy – one source perhaps of his invention – did Rack have access to the Discourse on the Western Paradise we have visited? I don’t think so.  But here in Rack’s couplets reigns that paradise combining meadows, music, streams and ornamental forest that Kubilai enjoyed at Xanadu each summer:

High rose its hills, with lasting verdure crowned,
And flowers immortal decked th’enchanted ground.
Meandering streamlets through the meadows glide,
And strains harmonious float along the tide.

Next, gorgeous buildings – as if nourished by the earth that feeds the trees surrounding them – ascend:

Thick, through the groves, the gilded temples rise
In sacred pomp, and glittering seek the skies.

Joined in concert, as I also dreamed them, are a damseland the instrument she fingers:

In this retreat, attracted by the sound
Of heavenly strains, a charming nymph I found
Sweeping a lyre  – To softest notes of love,
Swift o’er the quivering string, her flying fingers move:

Visionary enchantment overleaps its antecedent culmination:

The thrilling sounds, full, sweet, melodious, roll,
Charm the rapt ear, and captivate the soul. –

The dreamer supplicates the Nymph for her identity. She rejoins:

The goddess FANCY here extends her reign.
On yonder hill her towering temple stands,
The work of ages, raised by FANCY’s hands.

In a first hint of the moral vision which concludes poem, the Nymph attributes transience, and therefore imperfection, to her Mistress:

There she resides, with ever-changeful eyes:
Her own creation round in prospect lies.

The dreamer, like true Thomas Rhymer, submits to the Nymph and she conducts him to the Goddess’ Palace:

Near, and more near, the blazing pile we drew,
And all its splendors opened in our view.
Towering sublime, th’aerial mansion stood;
In rear half-circled by a gloomy wood.

This classical Arcadia dominates the VISION’s second Canto. And while my eye wearies of the Paradise Rack labours to depict (too long), scattered throughout are couplets of perfected balance – such as this, in which surprising Nereids exercise:

Swift through the waves the shining wantons glide,
Flounce in the stream, or shoot along the tide.

The pre-eminent moment, paradoxically distinguished by a vision of its mutability – and enacted in conclusion by the long length ofan alexandrine – comes finally within the dreamer’s observation:

One ample room the wondrous pile contains;
Not without change a moment it remains.
High rose the roof; a vast stupendous Dome!
The spacious vault a thousand lamps illume.

Full in the centre, on a pearly throne,
In gay attire, the goddess FANCY shone.
A vesture, dipt in Iris’ brightest bow,
Flows o’er her limbs, and floats in glittering folds below.

Transient reflections flow across a glass with which the goddess labours.  This mirror’s surface is (turned inside-out) her mind: and (strangely) is infused with life the restless deity expresses with it:

Before the queen an oval mirror stands,
The curious labour of her active hands,
Ample its size, of wondrous texture wrought
With power endued, surpassing human thought.

What Fancy sees combines both things that independently have drifted to the glass, and what, in herself, she has imagined:

On this deceptive mirror FANCY gazed,
For in its field she saw whate’er she pleased.
Whate’er in thought her fertile brain designed:
The varying labours of her changeful mind.

Wherever Rack learned Latin – as he shuttled the loom or stirred the dye-bath – his references are not perhaps the happiest. But while his couplet about Lucan’s mis-informed, Rack writes here (with a harmless cruelty) that matches Pope in wit and elegance:

These, in their order to describe, require
The fervent heat of true poetic fire.
That fire which glowed in Maro’s tuneful page,
And blazed refulgent in the Grecian sage.

That Tasso felt, when magic scenes he drew.
Which Lucan thought he felt and Ovid knew.

Now here’s a passage echoes or pre-figures the co-active presence, in my visionary Fragment, of musician damsel and the dome of an imagination:

While here I gazed, a lute’s harmonious sound
Floats in the dome and fills the circuit round:
The notes mellifluous, slowly-tuneful, roll,
And soothe the secret springs of FANCY’s soul.

Albeit Rack has discoursed on the play of maya, which represents the superficies of experience, crudely here, he breaks that charm and tosses a quotidian, cold stone onto the shimmering and flimsy surface of the ratiocinations he’d initiated:

The music ceased; a solemn silence reigns
Through all the temples, all th’ inchanted plains.

And now a second Goddess, Truth, appears and reprimands the poet – to whom, somewhat condescending, she attributes inexperience:

‘Why thoughtless youth, is thy unguarded mind
To FANCY’s fond illusions thus inclin’d?’

This dislocation breaks with violence on the reader. Dispirited, the poet, too, is shot down by abrupt apostrophes that pierce, split, penetrate and pinch the final adjectival present participles:

Then, with her sceptre, TRUTH the mirror struck;
Which instant in a thousand fragments broke.
Down fell the magic glass, with shatt’ring sound:
The shining spoils lay glitt’ring on the ground.

Tumult (as I’ve written). Expectation of Erhebung – punctured. This I comprehend.  And painfully remember:

Now of the pompous pile, no trace was seen
Nor aught remained of the once potent queen:
The phantoms all were fled, and nought I found
But one vast dreary desart spread around.

Such is the end of Rack’s excursion. And if this place of desolation is what Truth occasions, let me live on fondly in illusion. (For Oh! how Rack recalls… that once the Dome of my imagination foundered, its over-hanging shell was broken… infiltrated by encroaching desart.)

NOW MUCH OF Rack’s Vision’s in an ornamented language –  from which fustian I’ve extracted passages that breathe out freely from what’s suffocating otherwise.

But in Rack, as noticed earlier, ran antithetic currents. And on stylistic manners he was a sharp, judicious critick (albeit not, as some are, Tartarly and savage!) For Rack proclaimed that he detested artificiality and denounced ‘vain pretenders, who impose on the sentimentalist by an affectation of sensibility’. (Such was what I’d sensed in Collinson – whose ardour expressed all the feeling of a sheet of paper!)

Rack recommends, further, in An Evening Walk, ‘Chaste composition, plainness and neatness in both dress and writing.’  While later on his Walk, in recollectionof a sunset (‘striking and magnificent’), Rack scrutinises finely, nay, anatomises his reaction:

At the first view, the mind is usually overwhelmed with a tumult of wonder and delight: – a confusion of images, a rapid succession of ideas, for which language wants a name; – a transport of astonishment which seizes all the faculties of the soul.

Now here’s nice understanding of the operation of impressions which sublimity arouses in us, and how the faculties are incapacitated by that joy which comprehends within it a perplexity whose character – since language is inadequate to name or grasp  it – is inexpressible: while ecstasy is superseded by a philosophic contemplation of the quieter fields strong feeling opens:

But by degrees the sensations become less violent and more pleasing: astonishment is succeeded by a calmer delight, and transport subsides into reverent and pleasing admiration.

Wonderful!  No finer, more discrimating passage. And in view of later exposition on the subject, note Rack wrote this ca. 1780.

Rack the Quaker

I SHOULD RECALL, reverting to his Somerset excursions, that Rack was a Quaker, had published a Life of William Penn and admired John Woolman (best of Quakers, without Fox’s choler or Penn’s acquisitive ambition) who had walked through the Colonies singing God’s praises, preaching to the Indians and rebuking slavers. Woolman also censured dyeing – a trade Rack lived by!4

Lately, Woolman had arrived in England and died near York a little before Rack removed from Norfolk.  His Works were published.  Lamb, that generous friend of man, adored him. Crabbe Robinson declared that ‘Woolman’s is a beautiful soul. An illiterate tailor, he writes in a style of the most exquisite purity and grace. His moral qualities are transferred to his writings.’

Rack strove to write, like Woolman, with an ethical simplicity. And just as the American had walked intoning Psalmsalone and to both African and Cherokee, so Rack, Tremblingly alive all o’er, and stained no longer with the (literary) dyes that Woolman had disdained, walked naked of ambition in a Quakerly devotion, and – open in his solitude to the Creation – stood by the chasm and swallowed down its torrent.

By dyes, I mean, of course, those affectations he himself considered he’d adopted in poetic voyaging to realms of Fancy. And with something akin to the Psalmist’s ecstasy, Rack cried out (in plainest language):

‘All nature is Thy temple, from which the language of praise incessantly ascends to Thee from the various gradations of existence.’ 

The Earth is the Lord’s and all the creatures in it. I will bless his works in all places, Rack re-articulates the Psalmist.

Rack anticipated this simplicity in his Cell of Contemplation. Here once again, the Rhymer reclines ‘Till gentle slumbers snatched [his] sense away’, and the dreamer finds himself, it seems, within a dome, whose ‘ample roof appears an azure sky,’ around whose walls ‘Creation was displayed:

A wondrous scene! Compos’d of light and shade –
A wondrous scene! The work of hands divine
Where power supreme and art immortal shine.

Much as in my Xanadu (coincidentally – for Rack was composing in 1780):

deep sink the vales below,
Capacious beds, where rapid waters flow.

Hence, deep beneath the ground, in circuit wide,
Slowly meandring, creeps the parent tide,

And forms the springs which, bursting from her veins,
Refresh and fructify the thirsty plains.

The Dreamer, recognising he’s in Paradise – enacted here, as in Shang-du, by subterranean courses and by mazings of the stream these feed, which in its turn feeds earth and paradisal trees that grow up from it – now enjoys a vision of our Parent, Adam. While CONTEMPLATION, demi-deity, enjoins the dreamer to become a second Adam, and ‘the Eternal Architect adore.’

‘Come then,’ she cries,
In this retreat for ever seek to dwell,
Here, here, in peace, erect thy humble cell.’

Thus from a poetic complication, Rack extracted, or reverted to, a deeper plainness. He abandoned the couplet. The Dome he’d erected in imagination shattered. The Quaker in him from it hatched as Adam.  So Rack walked – and walking shook his spirit as it had John Woolman’s – naming what creation as it stood, so far, in Somerset this century, spoke to him and which he answered, annotating that which lay outside him and (poor fellow) desolately coughing.

‘So shaken as we are…’ The line recurs.

I‘LL MAKE NO more of it.  (I am not Rack and he, as I betimes shall be, is unintelligibly dead.  And most of what he noted I have quoted, as if Collinson had wrote it.)

But before exchanging an adieu with him, let me contemplate two pages, in Rack’s hand, that he composed at Culbone.  (Had he lodged on this farm where I took shelter? Entertained a Doppelgänger – mine perhaps? – in one of those two parlour chairs that face each other?)  Wherever Rack had sat, reflecting on the transformations he had undergone – from weaver, dyer, poet, essayist, philanthropist to antiquarian – he walked here with astonishment and pleasure:‘different shades of green,‘ he wrote at Culbone, ‘and the rich tints of the autumnal colours inexpressibly beautiful’ – and as Rack approaches death, we feel his spirit move across the paper:

… ‘a fine rivulet,’ he noted, ‘rushes down a narrow rocky channel over hung with wood with a fine gurgling sound, and passing by the church, forms a succession of cascades in its descent down the rocks into the sea.’5

How well I recognise that up-burst, then its down-rush into darker water!  But then, as though some interrupter’s lumbered clumsily among them, or landscape unfenced previously has been inclosed with hedges, Rack’s notes, in parts, from Culbone have been ploughed, harrowed and divided, scored through, scarified, submerged, scratched out, blotted anddeleted. It’s Collinson (because he has to) readies the text for publication. (Words, like caged birds, flutter their brief lives and then die behind the bars that screen them from us.)

RACK’S LABOUR ENDED after six years’ walking.  He met endless discomfort – not least, ‘a thousand fleas’, he cried out, biting him at Compton Martin.

‘For ten days’, Rack wrote to Collinson at New Year ’87, ‘I have been so weak I could scarcely hold my pen. I must resign myself to the fury of the storm which will soon hide me for ever.’

Where he died is unrecorded.  The last sentence of his final letter reads:

Sharp blows the wintry wind.

AND MY VALE?  These lines I inscribed on a mud track outside Culbone and re-iterate the question, long since trampled by the cattle:

If Rack was the spectre in Collinson’s corpus –
Are Rack and I, perhaps,
The Doppelgängers of each other’s opus?

 From The Fortnightly Review at

This is an excerpt from From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu, published by Shearsman Books in February 2013. Passages about Thomas the Rhymer and Doppelgänger occur in previous sections of the text. A further excerpt, ‘Notes taken from an Alpine landscape’, appears here.

Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His publications on Point Hope include The Things That Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

Also in the Fortnightly:

Edward Dowden: Coleridge as a poet.

Andrew Mitchell: On the road to Panstisocracy.

Elsewhere: Collinson’s History etc.



  1. Moving south-east to Wookey Hole, C. describes ‘a rich champaign with pleasing variety of surface, watered by a copious rivulet’. ‘The approach is picturesque, the scenery wildly magnificent.’  Towards the cave, stands a ‘romantick hollow, whose terrace leads to the cavern’s mouth,’ where he walks to ‘an excavation, rough and dirty.’  Chedder elicits a similar, detached depiction: ‘This cavern is rugged and uneven, but contains spacious vaults, whose arches present an awful appearance.  There are views which are grand beyond description, and where the prospects exhibit that wild magnificence which cannot fail impressing the mind of the spectator with awe at the works of that Power, whose voice even obdurate rocks obey, and retire.’ (Note echoes of Matthew and Psalm 97!)
  2. Edmund Rack was a Quaker who in ’75 had travelled out of Norfolk to study and improve the agricultural practice of the western counties and ‘promote the good of the community’. In ’77 he founded the West of England Agricultural Society; he was co-founder too of Bath’s Philosophical Society.  As Friend to True Liberty, he wrote (among much else) a pamphlet on reform of Parliament.
  3. Besides his  ‘Celestial Bed and Medico-electrical Apparatus’,  his treatments  included  ‘Electrical Ether, Nervous Aetherial Balsam, and the Imperial Pills’. Rack was persuaded publicly to declare a cure – which alas never happened.
  4. ‘Dyes,’ wrote Woolman, ‘being partly to please the eye and partly to hide dirt, I have felt, when travelling in dirtiness, and affected with unwholesome scents, a strong desire that the nature of dyeing cloth to hide dirt be more fully considered.’ The natureof ‘unnatural’ dyeing as transferred to literary composition is an issue that commands attention!
  5. And at Hardistone Point, from which I saw a rainbow stretching, Rack wrote as follows: ‘On the coming in of the tide, the ecchoes and dashing of the waves in these caverns is tremendous and astonishing. At low water the shore exhibits a striking scene of rocky fragments which have been washd from the cliffs above and and ly scattered around or piled on each other in wild magnificence… The cliffs on the east side hang over the beach with terrific sublimity and granduer (sic his spellings).’ How prospects such as this made this honest Quaker shake!

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