The Inchcape Rock
The poem is a ballad describing bitter end of those who commit to evil set in 14th Century Scotland.
It talks of a bell being installed on the Inchcape rock for warning the people and sea-farers about the reef near the Scottish coast. It is snatched by a pirate who ends up dying on the same land to symbolize a form of equalizing justice.
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.
The poet sets the natural setting with a calm and restful waters and sky near the sea coast. There is a ship docked near the coast, still and motionless with its erect keel. There is nothing in the setting to alarm any soul or any sign of storm to come.
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.
The second stanza tells that the drowsy sea waves. They ebb and flow without much energy or sound. The water the Inchcape Rock so lightly that they do not even ring the bell installed on it as if the entire ambience is lulled into a slumber.
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.
The poet talks about the history of the bell that was installed by the Abbot of Aberbrothok. Sensitive to and fully aware of the risk that ships had while traversing the rocky coast his intention was to warn them about a possible collision.
The bell was connected to a floating buoy chained to the rock. As the waves crashed against the buoy, the bell sounded loud warnings for the seamen to avoid any possible accident or tragedy.
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
The poet highlights the fact that the Inchcape rock was not visible from the sea especially during high waves. The mariners were made aware of its presence only through the sound of the bell. They grateful seamen thanked and expressed their good wishes to the Abbot for his kindness and compassion.
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.
The poet goes on to further detail the picture of the day. It was sunny and bright and filled with vigor and delight. The birds danced and playfully took flight while there remained certain buoyancy in the step of the ship’s men.
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.
In the next stanza the reader gets the first glimpse of the poet, Sir Ralph who is the captain of the anchored ship. As the day was clear and the waters green, the buoy was easily distinguishable as strikingly black. He was standing at the deck, watchfully staring at that buoy, a dark spot within the massive blue-green canvass of the ocean.
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.
The poet now talks about his feelings and emotions. The beautiful day added more cheer and zest to his spirits and he expressed it through a whistle and a song. This hid the sinister thought that was lurking behind that happy façade.
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.”
The devilish thoughts lurking inside the dark mind of the captain stirred something evil thoughts. He wanted to destroy the bell and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting ships. He ordered his men to lower a boat and hopped on it to get close to the buoy and the bell mounted on top of it. He wanted to obliterate the good work and name of the Abbot.
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.
The shipmen and the captain row the boat to the buoy and the Inchcape rock harboring it. In one sweep of disdain and brutality they uproot the bell from its roots.
Now the poet paints a picture of an uprooted bell being engulfed by the ravenous sea and it sinks to its depths.
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.”
As if to make a mournful cry, some bubbles spring around the bell but soon fizzle away as the bell drowns into the dark emptiness of the sea. The devilish captain is proud of his act and hopes that no one will ever offer thanks to or shower the Abbot with praise for his bell and generosity.
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.
Proud of his despicable deed, the Captain set the sails on a new journey across many seas and over many days. When he has collected and pirated enough treasure and booty, he heads back to the Scottish shores.
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.
The day of his return turns out to be dark and grim. The Sub does not shower its warmth and the whole environment is enveloped in an ominous and hazy blanket of fog.
Even the blustering winds of the day have seized and stalled as well
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.”
The Rover/captain is stationed at the deck of the ship. The fog has made it impossible to sight the land from a distance.
The crew of the sea is anxious and panic-stricken but the Rover assures them that there would be light once the moon arrives with the gentler and clearer night.
“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.”
One of the seamen cries out his anxiety as he could not make the position of the coast land as well the ship. As the waves recede into mute conspiracy, he laments the fact there is no Inchcape bell to help ease their fears and warn them of the nearing rocky coast.
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!”
Meanwhile the sea got more turbulent and feisty. There is no alarm bells ringing and the wind also drops to a standstill. The boat is now in the grip of the waves as it drifts with them.
And suddenly, there is a loud collision that they all feared. The ship thudded into the Inchcape rock. It was a doomed finish to a devious beginning. The bells of justice
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.
The Rover fell into a pit of his own making. The Inchcape rock had turned into his tombstone. He was aghast at his own horrible mistake and as the water rushed in from all corners he knew he had reached his breaking point.
He bemoaned his own sinister thoughts as his ship neared its inundated end.
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.
As he breathed his last he finally heard a bell rang in the distance. He was seized with horror. The sound was of the Abbot’s bell at the belly of the sea.
The Devil at the bottom had the bell in his hand and was ringing the death knell fervently. It was the final sound of the Rover’s fateful demise. It was deathly music of revenge, a song of poetic justice.