Robert Southey

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What is the message of Robert Southey's poem "Inchcape Rock"?

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The message of the poem is that the acts of evil men come back to haunt them, or more simply put, the wicked are justly punished for their evil deeds.

In this poem, the wicked Sir Ralph Rover decides, simply for spite, to cut the rope to the bell that sounds to warn sailors before they have a chance to wreck on the treacherous Inchcape Rock.

Sir Ralph cuts the rope simply to try to undo the good that the Abbot of Aberbrothok did in putting up the warning bell. Ralph does this to "plague" or torment the abbot, who he apparently dislikes or feels jealous of, and also to blacken the abbot's reputation. Ralph states:

“The next who comes to the Rock,
Won’t bless the Abbot of Aberbrothok.”

However, Sir Ralph is the one who pays the ultimate price for this spiteful act. His ship, filled with plunder, crashes into Inchcape Rock "with a shivering shock," sinking the ship and drowning Sir Ralph.

Sir Ralph's comeuppance for his evil deed is called "poetic justice," which is when a person receives a fitting punishment for his crimes. The moral of the story is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," for if Ralph Rover had put himself into the shoes of the other ships he gleefully anticipated crashing, he never would have cut the rope to the bell.

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"Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey is based on a traditional Scottish folktale concerning a dangerous rock outcropping in northern Scotland. Southey follows the original in making a simple moral point.

The moral perspective of the poem is Christian. Robert Southey himself was a member of the Church of England and the poem is narrated in Christian terms, with the morally good character being an Abbot and mentions of Christ and the Devil.

In the poem, the Abbot of Aberbrothok is blessed for having placed to bell on Inchcape Rock attached to a float so that mariners will be warned away from the rock, which was a hazard to navigation. Sir Ralph sinks the bell so that he can profit from ships wrecked on the rock. One night, Sir Ralph's own ship ends up wrecked on Inchcape Rock because the bell is no longer in place to warn him away. The moral is straightforward, that one's bad deeds will come back to haunt one, a concept that in Buddhism and Hinduism is called karma. In the Bible, a similar idea is expressed in Galatians 6:7: "whatever one sows, that will he also reap."

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