By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is a phrase from one of John Donne’s most famous pieces of writing. Indeed, it’s the same piece of writing that also includes what is probably his other most famous phrase, ‘No Man Is an Island’.
Although they’re often thought to come from a poem Donne wrote, and Donne is best-known as a poet, both of these lines – probably his two most widely-known – actually appear in one of Donne’s prose writings.
You can read the full ‘No Man Is an Island’ meditation here, but for the purposes of this analysis we’re going to focus on the famous paragraph:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne: a brief introduction
John Donne (1572-1631) was a hugely important figure in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. As a young man in the 1590s, he had pioneered what would become known as metaphysical poetry, writing impassioned and sensual poetry to his beloved that drew on new debates and discoveries in astronomy for its imagery and poetic conceits.
Common features of metaphysical poetry include elaborate similes and metaphors, extended poetic conceits and paradoxes, colloquial speech, and an interest in exploring the interplay between the physical and spiritual world (and between the big and the small). Donne is often said to be first metaphysical poet, and Donne’s genius for original, intellectually complex poetry certainly helped to set the trend for the poetry that followed him.
He began writing at the end of the sixteenth century, but the high moment of metaphysical poetry would be in the century that followed. Other key characteristics of metaphysical poetry include: complicated mental and emotional experience; unusual and sometimes deliberately contrived metaphors and similes; and the idea that the physical and spiritual universes are connected.
That is how Donne, as a young man, embarked on a literary career (although he appears to have written his early work to amuse his friends and associates, rather than for publication). Then, as he grew older, he became a devoted Anglican and rose to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He would write a series of Holy Sonnets which transferred his earlier youthful passions from a woman on to God Himself.
But Donne was also a powerful writer and deliverer of sermons, and a talented prose writer. The famous lines he wrote that contain the ‘for whom the bell tolls’ statement were written in his last years.
In 1623, he fell ill with a fever and, while he recovered, he wrote the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a series of prose writings split into three parts: ‘Meditations’, ‘Expostulations to God’, and ‘Prayers’. The oft-quoted ‘no man is an island’ line, as well as the ‘for whom the bell tolls’ one, come the seventeenth Meditation in Donne’s Devotions.
Donne was gravely ill and his own death, and the mortality of all human life, must have been continually on his mind; the Devotions come back to sin and salvation as recurrent themes, too.
‘No man is an island’: analysis
The meaning of Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ meditation is fairly straightforward. We should feel a sense of belonging to the whole of the human race, and should feel a sense of loss at every death, because it has taken something away from mankind.
The funeral bell that tolls for another person’s death also tolls for us, because it marks the death of a part of us, but also because it is a memento mori, a reminder that we ourselves will die one day.
The power of the passage is in the language Donne chooses to use. In many ways, it’s a natural extension of his earlier metaphysical poetry, which often unravelled a single idea, thinking through the metaphor, developing it, taking it to its logical conclusion, and, occasionally, deliberately taking it to absurd extremes.
Here, the development of the central metaphor is more staid, but is still noteworthy for its being extended over the course of several sentences. Nobody lives or exists alone, and we are all part of something greater. Each individual person is like a part of the mainland or a piece of a bigger continent, rather than an island nation that is self-sufficient and cut off from the rest.
It’s surprising the Donne’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ meditation hasn’t been co-opted for political ends during the age of Brexit. The assertion that ‘every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ lends itself to a Remainer perspective, that we are stronger remaining together, while the later statement that ‘if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less’ could readily be seized upon by either the Remain or Leave camps.
But that’s perhaps an idle meditation, unlike Donne’s. Perhaps we should just be thankful it hasn’t been brought into political service.
By way of concluding this analysis, it’s worth noting that the ‘No man is an island’ paragraph is not, in fact, the conclusion of Donne’s Meditation XVII. Instead, there is a further paragraph, which runs:
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
About John Donne
John Donne (1572-1631) is one of the most important poets of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in English literature. In many ways, what is now known as metaphysical poetry began with Donne and his innovative use of imagery, particularly his fondness for extended metaphors and elaborate conceits which draw on what were, at the time, new scientific theories and discoveries.
Key characteristics of metaphysical poetry include: complicated mental and emotional experience; unusual and sometimes deliberately contrived metaphors and similes; and the idea that the physical and spiritual universes are connected. This last one is where the term ‘metaphysical’ came from: from metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with, among other things, the relationship between mind and matter, or between the physical world and human consciousness. We can observe all of these features in Donne’s poetry.
His early poems, circulated in manuscript in the 1590s when he was still a young man in his twenties fresh out of university, are love poems which are disarmingly frank and direct both in what they show us (lovers together in bed, a man imploring his mistress to undress for him), and in how they address us (‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ is a refreshingly irreverent line after so many poems in praise of the sun’s life-giving light and warmth, while ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue’ was a daringly blunt way to get your reader’s attention in the age that gave us ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’).
But after his conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England, and his entry into the priesthood (Donne would eventually rise to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), Donne’s poetry replaced his female lover with the figure of God as his subject and addressee. He wrote a series of ‘Holy Sonnets’ which possess all of the directness of his earlier poems, and the same level of passion and fervour. In one poem, Donne calls upon God to ‘ravish’ him. He is regarded as a key figure of the Elizabethan and Jacobean literary world and perhaps second only to Shakespeare in terms of the influence a writer of that time had on subsequent English literature.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.