Critically Analyze the poem The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey

Inchcape Rock is a popular poem by Robert Southey about the Inchcape Rock Legend, a reef which is situated in the North Sea, close to the coastal region of Angus in Scotland. The Inchcape Rock is known for its infamy as causation for shipwreck.
This poem by Robert Southey revolves around the famous folktale of an Abbot, a monk who placed a bell on the reef to issue warning to seamen and seafarers about the impending danger during storms. According to the folktale, whenever the bell used to ring, the seafarers used to bless the Abbot’s wisdom and thank him for saving them from danger. But a sea robber named Ralph cut down the bell to earn money and treasures from the ships that fatally crashed against the rock. However, a day came when Ralph’s vessel too encounters a storm and crashes against the rock. This is when he hears death bells ringing.

A ballad is a long, narrative poem that tells a story. The Inchcape Rock is written in the form of a ballad interwoven with a number of poetical devices to convey a moral lesson- ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’
A ballad is traditionally sung by a wandering musician. Here, each stanza of the first line rhymes with the second and the third with the fourth. An example is given below:
“The buoy of the Inchcape Bell was seen
A darker speck on the ocean green;
Sir Ralph the Rover, walk’d his deck
And he fix’d his eye on the darker speck.”

Alliteration is the close repetition of the consonant sounds at the beginning of words to facilitate narration. Examples of alliteration in the poem are,-
a. The ship was as still as she could be
b. Without either sign or sound of their shock

Personification is a figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstract ideas are given human attributes or feelings. An example of Personification in the poem is:

“The Ship was as still as she could be
Her sails from heaven received no motion,
Her keel was steady in the ocean.”
A metaphor is that figure of speech where comparison of two different things are implied but not clearly stated. Example of metaphor in the poem is given below,-

                        “A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell
The Devil below was ringing his knell.”

The poet has used descriptive and narrative techniques to enhance the effect of the poem. The poem, The Inchcape Rock, provides a fine verbal image of the calm atmosphere of the sea. Then the Inchcape Rock is introduced, the old Abott’s plan of putting a bell. This way the ballad glides from one incident to another very smoothly, providing a vividly picture into the readers minds.
Example of Visual images in the poem:
1. The sun in heaven was shining gay.
2. The waves flowed over the Inchcape Rock.
Examples of Sound images in the poem:
1. And over the waves its warning rung.
2. The sea birds screamed as they wheeled round,
And there was joyance in their sound.

The poem, The Inchcape Rock, teaches a moral lesson- As you sow, so shall you reap. A poem with a moral theme is called a didactic poem. The poem proves the principle that crime gets its own punishment. The Rover, cuts off the bell to peeve the good Abbot and the other helpless sailors but in the end he falls into his own laid trap. Remorse and regrets later overtake him but it was too late already.
“Sir Ralph the Rover tore his hair,
He cursed himself in despair”

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  1. I first heard this poem in 1962 when as a 22 year old in the RAF, my sergeant ( a poetry junkie)read it to me. I was so hooked on its descriptive quality I could,nt help annoying people as I read it out loud..

  2. Thanks Trisha – great analysis! I had to learn this poem by heart as a punishment at school (many years ago) and have remembered it ever since.

    There are some differences in the text compared to the version I learned – I think real differences not just failing memory. For instance I remember finding it strange that one verse kept jumping between present and past tense:

    The sun in heaven is shining gay
    All things are joyous on that day
    The seabirds screamed as they wheeled around
    There is a joyance in their sound

    Now in the current version all lines are rendered in the past tense. It looks more correct but maybe is not the original.

    Where would you find the original? BTW I learned it as by the author “Anon”, now I find it was by Robert Southey.

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