Robert Southey

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Can you explain the lines of Robert Southey's poem The Inchcape Rock?

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The poem The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey refers to a bell which has been placed on a reef after many sailors have presumably lost their lives on this notorious stretch of sea. The poem begins calmly and the reader is unaware of the significance of the rock as ships remain apparently safe with their "keel [was] steady in the ocean" suggesting that the ships are upright and not in any apparent danger. However, this misleads seamen who are oblivious to the dangers they cannot see beneath the waves and "Without either sign or sound of their shock", the rock threatens their existence. This is why seamen are so grateful to the Abbot of Aberbrothok who placed a bell on the rocks and, when the sea is calm the rock is visible and bell stays silent but when it is stormy "on a buoy in the storm it floated and swung / And over the waves its warning rung." As the bell moves with the waves, it rings and this warns sailors. When sailors hear the bell, they know to steer clear of it because of the rocks and they are grateful to the abbot and thank or "blest" him. 

This angers Sir Ralph the Rover and so on a clear day when "The Sun in heaven was shining gay", Ralph thinks of a plan. He "fix’d his eye" on the "speck" and feels immediately invigorated at his wicked plan. Sir Ralph intends to "plague" or upset the abbot by loosening the bell so that it sinks to the bottom "with a gurgling sound." Having done this, Sir Ralph goes about his business and "scour’d the seas for many a day." He is apparently a pirate as he intends to return home with "plunder’d store," meaning that he has stolen goods from his escapades. On the return, it is dark when they approach home and one of his men comments that he wishes he could hear the bell because he can hear "the breakers roar", suggesting that they are near the shore. As the boat drifts, it hits the rock "with a shivering shock." 

Too late to do anything about it, Sir Ralph berates himself "in his despair" and finds his ship is sinking. As he is drowning, Sir Ralph does think he hears a bell just like the Inchcape Bell but it is the Devil "ringing his knell." In other words, Sir Ralph will be going to Hell.

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In the poem "Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey, the poet tells a cautionary tale of a pirate-like seaman who decides to be mischievous. He doesn't like sailors and sea-captains blessing the churchman (abbot) who paid out for a warning bell on the jagged rocks called The Inchcape Rock. Many seafarers were so grateful that they offered a prayer-like thanks to the Abbot after they realised the bell had saved them from drowning and ship wreck. Sir Ralph the Rover decides to creep out and take the bell, letting it sink to the bottom. (Make a note of the sonorous language here.) Irony of ironies, when his own ship needs the bell on a dark stormy night, it isn't there! He hears the devil ringing it in the depths as he drowns!

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