Compare the characters of Sir Ralph and the Abbot in the poem "The Inchcape Rock."

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kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the poem "Inchcape Rock," the Abbot and Sir Ralph are very different characters. The Abbot, for instance, is a kind and good-hearted man who wants to make sure that people are kept safe at sea. That is why he installed the bell in the first place: as a means of warning sailors that the Inchcape Rock was under water. The fact that the Abbot created something so effective also suggests that he is an intelligent and innovative man.

In complete contrast to the Abbot is Sir Ralph. When he is introduced to the reader, he is described as a carefree person. He enters the poem whistling and singing. Sir Ralph, however, has a much darker side: he delights in "wickedness" and, in particular, wants to "plague" the kind-hearted Abbot. His dark and destructive nature is shown by his next action: he cuts down the warning bells and lets it drop into the sea. The poem does not explain why he does this, thereby suggesting that he is the sort of person who delights in causing trouble without any real cause.

In an ironic twist, however, Sir Ralph loses far more than the Abbot. On his return from collecting booty, his ship gets in trouble and sinks. During this time, the only sound he can hear is that of the Devil ringing the very bell which he sabotaged. 

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey is based on a Scottish folktale about a fourteenth-century monk, the Abbot of Aberbrothok, and a pirate, Sir Ralph the Rover. It follows the traditional conventions of the ballad genre in having a simple narrative line, strong moral, and clearly delineated flat characters. The poem does not portray the psychology of the characters or give many details about them, nor does it allow for any moral ambiguities.

Inchcape Rock is an actual reef in the North Sea that is fully submerged at high tide and a major hazard for mariners. According to the legend, the Abbot of Aberbrothok placed a bell on a buoy attached to the reef that would ring, alerting seafarers to the unseen hazard. When people heard the ringing of the bell, they would bless the name of the Abbot. All we really know about the Abbot is that he is morally good, well-liked, and the head of a monastery. 

In contrast to the good Abbot, Sir Ralph the Rover is an evil pirate who plunders shipwrecks off the Scottish coast. He deliberately sinks the bell so that mariners, who expect to hear the bell if they get close to the reef, will actually be wrecked on the reef. His evil actions damn his soul, and rather than the bell acting as a blessing for him, he imagines it as a sign of the Devil.  

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