John Donne: Poems "For whom the bell tolls"

"For whom the bell tolls"

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"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 bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

--Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation XVII"

These are perhaps the most famous lines in John Donne’s oeuvre, especially since they were used in the 20th century by Ernest Hemingway for the title of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls). It is often suggested that the lines come from Donne's poetry, but they come from a prose work, the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes, written in 1624 while Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s (a very high honor in the Church of England). The book expresses his reflections in light of his very serious bout with spotted fever (Warnke 9; Novarr 162).

Donne dedicated this set of 23 short prose “Meditations” to Prince Charles, the son of King James I. The elder Stuart had elevated Donne to this high ecclesiastical position and had, essentially, made Donne’s fortune. But these works are hardly the toadying efforts of a sycophant to royalty; they are personal thoughts about the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. That they would be addressed to the royal personage who provided his clerical appointment was only fitting in Donne’s time.

The bell metaphor is carried over into this meditation (number XVII) from the previous one, in which Donne, remembering himself as a very ill man lying in his bed at home, recounted that he had heard the tolling of the funeral bell in the neighboring church day after day. Thinking himself near death, he imagines himself like these dead, passing from this life into the next. This morbid fascination has come over him because of enforced solitude, the people around him being loath to come near him for fear of infection. Hearing the bell, he considers that, perhaps, these people have “caused it to toll for mee, and I know not that” (Coffin 441). This leads him to a profound metaphysical realization, not unlike what fills much of his poetry (Coffin 440):

The Church is Catholike, universall, so are all her Actions; All that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns mee, for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and engraffed into that body, whereof I am a member … All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language.

In the Catholic tradition, all humanity is connected in the Body of Christ, and all are equal before God; in the Afterlife, there is no more male or female, Jew or Greek. The Bible states that “we are many parts, but we are all part of one body in Christ” and that “there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”

The implication for the individual living on Earth is that he is part of a greater whole, such that the death-bell has deep and significant meaning for everyone who hears it. We are all in this life together and part of the same divine plan, so the bell does toll for the sake of all who have ears to hear it.

The toll for another’s death is also a reminder to the individual hearer to get his own affairs in order in the short time remaining before his own death. The civic-mindedness that comes from seeing oneself as part of a greater whole also provides direction for voluntary charity as an expression of spiritual devotion as one tries to live by divine standards.

(The writers acknowledge Leigh Fairchild-Coppoletti for non-copyrighted assistance in developing this material.)