ICSE Literature —–The Inchcape Rock

Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey (1820)


No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,
The Ship was still as she could be;
Her sails from heaven received no motion,
Her keel was steady in the ocean.


Meaning .. The sea was calm and the water was placid. The ship stood still as the wind blew too slowly to add any thrust to its sails. The ship’s keel was upright. On the whole, there was nothing ominous for the crew to worry about.


Without either sign or sound of their shock,
The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;
So little they rose, so little they fell,
They did not move the Inchcape Bell.


Meaning … The Inchcape Bell anchored to the undersea Inchcape Rock had fallen silent too as the sedate waves had no power to rock the bell. Naturally, the Bell could make no sound.


The Abbot of Aberbrothok
Had placed that bell on the Inchcape Rock;
On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
And over the waves its warning rung.

When the Rock was hid by the surge’s swell,
The Mariners heard the warning Bell;
And then they knew the perilous Rock,
And blest the Abbot of Aberbrothok


Meaning … The Abbot of Aberbrothok, being a spiritual man, knew the danger posed by the submerged rock for the passing ships. It could catch the unsuspecting captain of a ship off-guard. A collision of the keel with the rock could cripple and sink it. In order to forewarn the sailors, he had placed a large bell atop a buoy and had it anchored to the rock with a chain. The sea waves relentlessly rocked the bell back and forth. The sound from the large bell reverberated all around warning the passing ships to steer clear of the rock. It was a simple arrangement to avert disasters. Mariners invariably praised the Abot for this kind act of placing the warning device on the rock.


The Sun in the heaven was shining gay,
All things were joyful on that day;
The sea-birds scream’d as they wheel’d round,
And there was joyaunce in their sound.


Meaning … It was a cheerful sunny day. The sea birds flew past the ship in their typical raucous manner. The mood aboard the ship was buoyant.


The buoy of the Inchcape Bell was seen
A darker speck on the ocean green;
Sir Ralph the Rover walk’d his deck,
And fix’d his eye on the darker speck.


Meaning .. Sir Rover, the Captain of the ship paced along the ship’s deck in a relaxed mood. His eyes fell on the buoy of the Inchcape Bell visible from a long distance. It was a tiny dark piece with the green ocean’s waters. He observed the bell carefully.


He felt the cheering power of spring,
It made him whistle, it made him sing;
His heart was mirthful to excess,
But the Rover’s mirth was wickedness.


Meaning … The Spring season lifted his spirits. He felt unusually joyous as magic of the cheerful weather gripped his mind. He whistled and sang in delight as his heart swayed in joy. Sadly, the joy rekindled the devil inside him.


His eye was on the Inchcape Float;
Quoth he, “My men, put out the boat,
And row me to the Inchcape Rock,
And I’ll plague the Abbot of Aberbrothok.”


Meaning .. The Satan inside him made him to cook up a very nasty plan. He wanted the good work of the Abot to be destroyed due to no apparent reason. The intent was so clearly wicked. By destroying the Bell, he could engineer many more fatal collisions of passing ships with the hidden treacherous rock. It was so sinful an idea, but Rover felt impelled to carry it out. He ordered his men to lower a small boat from the ship so that he could row to the Bell’s proximity to uproot it. The warning signal could be gone forever.


The boat is lower’d, the boatmen row,
And to the Inchcape Rock they go;
Sir Ralph bent over from the boat,
And he cut the bell from the Inchcape Float.


Meaning … In no time, Rover approached the Bell. From his boat, he bent over to cut the chain of the buoy, thus destroying the device.


Down sank the Bell with a gurgling sound,
The bubbles rose and burst around;
Quoth Sir Ralph, “The next who comes to the Rock,
Won’t bless the Abbot of Aberbrothok.”


Meaning … With the buoy separated, the Bell sank to the bed of the sea. The sound died and the bubbles vanished. Rover rejoiced at what he had done. He knew the peril will soon ravage many ships and there will be none to shower their gratitude on the Abot!


Sir Ralph the Rover sail’d away,
He scour’d the seas for many a day;
And now grown rich with plunder’d store,
He steers his course for Scotland’s shore.


Meaning .. Having done the despicable act, Rover sailed away on his voyage. It was a long voyage that took him from place to place. He was a pirate who amassed his wealth through banditry on the high seas. He attacked other ships and looted their wealth at gunpoint. Finally, he headed towards Scotland.


So thick a haze o’erspreads the sky,
They cannot see the sun on high;
The wind hath blown a gale all day,
At evening it hath died away.


Meaning .. On one occasion, the sea became rough, windy, and dark. A thick haze descended on the waters like a shroud. Visibility was very poor. The atmosphere was gloomy. The howling winds of the day, however, had slowed down by dusk.


On the deck the Rover takes his stand,
So dark it is they see no land.
Quoth Sir Ralph, “It will be lighter soon,
For there is the dawn of the rising Moon.”


Meaning … Rover stood in the deck a little concerned, and scanned the horizon. The darkness made it impossible to sight any land. Sir Ralph wanted to remain optimistic. He thought things would return to normalcy with the day’s passing. Moon had appeared in the night sky.


“Canst hear,” said one, “the breakers roar?
For methinks we should be near the shore.”
“Now, where we are I cannot tell,
But I wish we could hear the Inchcape Bell.”


Meaning .. A sailor onboard the ship stood on the deck clueless about the position of the ship. The roar of the waves were somewhat muted. Someone guessed they were close to land. At that moment, the sailor wished he could hear the Inchcape Bell’s warning (and comforting) knells.


They hear no sound, the swell is strong,
Though the wind hath fallen they drift along;
Till the vessel strikes with a shivering shock,
“Oh Christ! It is the Inchcape Rock!”


Meaning … The sea became more worrisome. The sailors tried to trace the Inchcape Bell’s sound, but heard nothing of the sort. The sea drifted listlessly. Then came the thud and the sound all sailors dread. It was the shock caused by the ship running into the infamous Inchcape Rock. The ship was doomed.


Sir Ralph the Rover tore his hair,
He curst himself in his despair;
The waves rush in on every side,
The ship is sinking beneath the tide.


Meaning .. It was the day of reckoning for the hideous Ralph. He had fallen into the ditch he had dug for others. As water gushed in from all sides, Sir Ralph knew the end was near. He cursed himself over and over again in anger, disgust and frustration. The ship was heading towards its watery grave.


But even in his dying fear,
One dreadful sound could the Rover hear;
A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,
The Devil below was ringing his knell.


Meaning …. In the moments preceding his death, Sir Rover heard a sound that must have sent a chill down his spine. It was the sound of the sunken Inchcape Bell. Apparently, the devils in the deep sea were ringing the Bell to tell Ralph that it was sweet revenge!



The Inchcape Rock Questions and answers … 

Question 1 .. Why had the Abbot of Aberbrothok placed the Bell on the Inchcape Rock?

The Inchcape Rock posed real danger to the shipping in the area lying to the south-east of Scotland. When the sea was calm, the upper portion of the Rock was visible to the passing ships as the water level remained low. The captain would see the Rock and steer clear of it with ease. But, when the sea became turbulent, the water would rise and submerge the Rock. The unsuspecting Captain would run into the hidden Rock wrecking his ship.

To avert such disasters, the Abbot of Aberbrothok, a kind man with an altruistic mind, had tethered a large brass warning bell to the tip of the rock. When a storm blew, the Bell would sway with the choppy water and give out a loud sound. The sound alerted the passing ships of the hidden danger and made them to bypass the perilous rock. Many shipwrecks were thus preempted.


Question 2 .. Why did Ralph cut off the Bell?

Ralph was a wicked-minded, and jealous person. He made his riches through piracy. Ships in distress were easy preys for Ralph. The Inchape Bell helped to avert many shipwrecks. Thus the Bell, a great boon to many sailors, was an impediment to Ralph.

Apart from this, Ralph was a devilish person. He couldn’t tolerate the way sailors showered their gratitude on the Abbot for having installed the Inchcape Bell atop the Rock. Jealousy against the Abbot drove him to cut off the bell.


Question 3 … What sort of man the Abbot of Aberbrothok was?

He was an Abbot. That explains why he was so spiritual, benign, and compassionate. He was distressed to see ships meeting their end due to the hidden rock in the sea. Installing the Bell was a clever way to warn the sailors to steer clear of danger.


Question 4 .. Describe the dying moments of Ralph.

When Ralph realized that he along with his men was doomed, his mind became a maelstrom of anger, disgust and frustration. He cursed himself as it dawned upon him that the missing Bell had been the cause of his tragedy. As the death drew nearer, he heard the same sound that the sinking bell had made while falling down to the sea bed. The sound grimly reminded him of his sin of dislodging the Bell.



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