Seven irregular Spenserians (ababcC) signed "Philo-Dormiat." "The Chapel Bell," as it was later titled, was written in 1793 and eventually preserved by the poet as an example of his juvenilia. While the poem memorializes his unhappiness at ever-conservative Oxford, Southey's early verse is very much in the Oxford tradition. His ambivalent and life-long interest in Catholicism is apparent in this early poem: "Thy vision-scaring sounds alone recal | The Pray'r that trembles on a yawn to Heaven; | And this Dean's gape, and that Dean's nasal tone, | And Roman Rites retain'd, tho' Roman Faith be flown!"
"The Chapel Bell" was twice revised, first for Poems (1797), and afterwards for the Works, when the faux-Miltonic sixth stanza was rewritten and the reference to the deans in the last couplet excised. In 1800 it was reprinted in the Gentleman's Magazine under the original pseudonym with original title. Coleridge made his debut appearance in the Morning Chronicle the same month that Southey's poem was published.
Robert Southey to Neville White, 6 July 1820: "My visit to Oxford brought with it feelings of the most opposite kind. After the exhibition in the theatre, and the collation in Brazenose Hall given by the Vice-Chancellor, I went alone into Christ Church walks, where I had not been for six-and-twenty years. Of the friends with whom I used to walk there, many (and among them some of the dearest) were in their graves. I was then inexperienced, headstrong, and as full of errors as of youth and hope and ardour. Through the mercy of God, I have retained the whole better part of my nature, and as for the lapse of years, that can never be a mournful consideration to one who hopes to be ready for a better world, whenever his hour may come" Life and Correspondence (1849-1850) 5:44.
Charles Lamb to Robert Southey: "'Blame as thou mayest the Papist's erring creed' — which and other passages brought me back to the old Anthology days and the admonitory lesson to 'Dear George' on the Vesper Bell, a little poem which retains its first hold upon me strangely" 19 August 1825; Letters, ed. Thomas Noon Talfourd (1837) 2:188-89.
A Correspondent: "We purpose today giving a further sample of Dr. Southey's orginal ideas on another subject, that our readers may see, as Mr. Hunt said of Cobbett, 'the versatility of his talent, and how easily he can write on one side and on the other.' In the early days, Mr. Southey published the following [first three stanzas of The Chapel Bell].... We have nothing to add to these lines (excellent, in their way, as pointing out one of the chief absurdities of our potent Universities) but that the man who composed them is the fellow who wrote the slavish, servile Vision of Judgment" The Examiner (12 March 1826) 163.
Lo! I, the man whose Muse did whilom mask
(So FREEDOM taught) in high-voic'd Minstrel's weeds,
Am now enforced — a far unfitter task,
For Cap and Gown to leave the Patriot's meeds,
For yon dull noise, that tinkles thro' the air,
Bids me lay by the Lyre, and go to Matin Pray'r.
O, how I hate the sound! — It is the knell,
That still a requiem tolls to Comfort's hour;
And loth am I, at SUPERSTITION'S Bell,
To quit or MORPHEUS' or the MUSE'S Bower.
Better to lie and dose, than gape amain,
Hearing still mumbled o'er the same eternal strain!
Thou tedious Herald of more tedious Pray'rs,
Say, hast thou ever summon'd from his rest
One Being wak'ning to Religious cares,
Or rous'd one pious transport in the breast?
Or rather, do not all reluctant creep—
To linger out the hour, in listlessness or sleep?
I love the Bell that calls the Poor to pray,
Chiming, from Village Church its cheerful sound,
When the Sun smiles on LABOUR'S Holiday,
And all the Rustic train are gather'd round—
Each deftly dizen'd in his Sunday's best,
And pleas'd to hail the day of Piety and Rest.
And when, dim-shadowing o'er the face of day,
The mantling mists of even-tide rise slow,
As thro' the forest gloom I wend my way,
The Minster Curfew's sullen roar I know:—
I pause; and love its solemn toll to hear,
As, made by distance soft, it dies upon the ear!
Nor not to me th' unfrequent midnight knell
Tolls sternly-harmonising: on mine ear
As the deep death-fraught sounds long ling'ring dwell,
Sick to the heart of Hope, and Love, and Fear,
Soul-jaundic'd, I do loathe Life's upland steep,
And with strange envy muse the Deadman's dreamless sleep!
But thou, memorial of Monastic Gaul!
What fancy, sad or lightsome, hast thou given?
Thy vision-scaring sounds alone recal
The Pray'r that trembles on a yawn to Heaven;
And this Dean's gape, and that Dean's nasal tone,
And Roman Rites retain'd, tho' Roman Faith be flown!