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The poem Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey is a ballad describing the bitter end of those who commit to evil set in 14th Century Scotland.
It talks of a bell being installed on the Inchcape rock for warning the people and sea-farers about the reef near the Scottish coast. It is snatched by a pirate who ends up dying on the same land to symbolize a form of equalizing justice.
The poet sets the natural setting with calm and restful waters and sky near the sea coast. There is a ship docked near the coast, still and motionless with its erect keel. There is nothing in the setting to alarm any soul or any sign of storm to come.
The second stanza tells that the drowsy sea waves. They ebb and flow without much energy or sound. They water the Inchcape Rock so lightly that they do not even ring the bell installed on it as if the entire ambiance is lulled into a slumber.
The poet talks about the history of the bell that was installed by the Abbot of Aberbrothok. Sensitive to and fully aware of the risk that ships had while traversing the rocky coast his intention was to warn them about a possible collision.
The bell was connected to a floating buoy chained to the rock. As the waves crashed against the buoy, the bell sounded loud warnings for the seamen to avoid any possible accident or tragedy.
The poet highlights the fact that the Inchcape rock was not visible from the sea especially during high waves. The Mariners were made aware of its presence only through the sound of the bell. They grateful seamen thanked and expressed their good wishes to the Abbot for his kindness and compassion.
The poet goes on to further detail the picture of the day. It was sunny and bright and filled with vigor and delight. The birds danced and playfully took flight while there remained certain buoyancy in the step of the ship’s men.
In the next stanza, the reader gets the first glimpse of the poet, Sir Ralph who is the captain of the anchored ship. As the day was clear and the waters green, the buoy was easily distinguishable as strikingly black. He was standing at the deck, watchfully staring at that buoy, a dark spot within the massive blue-green canvass of the ocean.
The poet now talks about his feelings and emotions. The beautiful day added more cheer and zest to his spirits and he expressed it through a whistle and a song. This hid the sinister thought that was lurking behind that happy façade.
The devilish thoughts lurking inside the dark mind of the captain stirred some evil thoughts. He wanted to destroy the bell and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting ships. He ordered his men to lower a boat and hopped on it to get close to the buoy and the bell mounted on top of it. He wanted to obliterate the good work and name of the Abbot.
The shipment and the captain row the boat to the buoy and the Inchcape rock harboring it. In one sweep of disdain and brutality, they uproot the bell from its roots. Now the poet paints a picture of an uprooted bell being engulfed by the ravenous sea and it sinks to its depths.
As if to make a mournful cry, some bubbles spring around the bell but soon fizzle away as the bell drowns into the dark emptiness of the sea. The devilish captain is proud of his actions and hopes that no one will ever offer thanks to or shower the Abbot with praise for his bell and generosity.
Proud of his despicable deed, the Captain set the sails on a new journey across many seas and over many days. When he has collected and pirated enough treasure and booty, he heads back to the Scottish shores.
The day of his return turns out to be dark and grim. The Sub does not shower its warmth and the whole environment is enveloped in an ominous and hazy blanket of fog. Even the blustering winds of the day have seized and stalled as well
The Rover/captain is stationed at the deck of the ship. The fog has made it impossible to sight the land from a distance. The crew of the sea is anxious and panic-stricken but the Rover assures them that there would be light once the moon arrives with the gentler and clearer night.
One of the seamen cries out his anxiety as he could not make the position of the coastland as well as the ship. As the waves recede into a mute conspiracy, he laments the fact there is no Inchcape bell to help ease their fears and warn them of the nearing rocky coast.
Meanwhile, the sea got more turbulent and feisty. There are no alarm bells ringing and the wind also drops to a standstill. The boat is now in the grip of the waves as it drifts with them.
And suddenly, there is a loud collision that they all feared. The ship thudded into the Inchcape rock. It was a doomed finish to a devious beginning. The bells of justice
The Rover fell into a pit of his own making. The Inchcape rock had turned into his tombstone. He was aghast at his own horrible mistake and as the water rushed in from all corners he knew he had reached his breaking point. He bemoaned his own sinister thoughts as his ship neared its inundated end.
As he breathed his last he finally heard a bell rang in the distance. He was seized with horror. The sound was of the Abbot’s bell at the belly of the sea.
The Devil at the bottom had the ball in his hand and was ringing the death knell fervently. It was the final sound of the Rover’s fateful demise. It was deathly music of revenge, a song of poetic justice. Read questions about the poem here.