Donne is approaching death. Hearing a church bell signifying a funeral, he observes that every death diminishes the large fabric of humanity. We are all in this world together, and we ought to use the suffering of others to learn how to live better so that we are better prepared for our own death, which is merely a translation to another world.
Perhaps Donne’s most famous prose, “Meditation 17,” is the source of at least two popular quotations: “No man is an island” and (not his exact words) “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” In his meditations, Donne sought to examine some aspect of daily life—usually a regular religious rite—and explicate its meaning for himself and, by extension, all Christians or humanity in general.
In this two-paragraph meditation, Donne meditates upon the sounding of a church bell signifying a funeral and connects it to his own present illness. He wonders if the person is aware that the bell has sounded for him. (Obviously, if someone is dead, he does not know and it is too late for him to meditate upon it.) Donne then applies the idea to himself, using the bell to become aware of his own spiritual sickness, and to everyone else by noting that the church is a universal establishment. Every human action affects the rest of humanity in some way. The church’s universality comes from God, who is in charge of all “translations” from earthly to spiritual existence which occur at death. Although God uses various means to achieve this changeover, God is nonetheless the author and cause of each death. Donne also compares this death-knell to the church bell calling the congregation to worship, as both bells apply to all and direct their attention to matters more spiritual than material.
Donne uses an interesting image when he considers how God is the “author” of every person and every death: “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” Whether a man dies of old age, in battle, from disease or accident, or even through the actions of the state dispensing its idea of justice, God has in a sense decided the terms of each death. As universal author, God will bind together these various “translated” pages, each man a chapter, into a volume which is open to all. In the new universal “library” of mankind, “every book shall lie open to one another.” Yet all of this imagery takes up only one sentence, and Donne returns in the next sentence to the meaning of the bell.
Donne also recounts how the various religious orders disagreed about which group should be given the privilege of ringing the first bell calling everyone to prayer; the decision was made to allow the order which rose first in the morning to ring that bell. Again Donne connects this to the death-knell and urges himself and his readers to take its imminence into account when deciding what to do each day. After all, the bell really tolls for the person who has the ears to hear it.
At the opening of the second paragraph, Donne returns to his idea that “no man is an island,” indicating that everyone is connected to every other human being in some way. Just as dirt and sand clods are part of the European continent, so too is each man part of the entire human race; the removal of a clod diminishes the continent, and the removal of a human life diminishes mankind. Since every death diminishes the rest of mankind in some way, when the bell tolls for a funeral it tolls in a sense for everyone.
Donne concludes by stating that his meditation is not an effort to “borrow misery,” since everyone has enough misery for his life. He does, however, argue that affliction is a treasure in that it causes men to grow and mature; therefore we inherit wisdom from perceiving another’s suffering. Although a man may not be able to make use of that wisdom himself as he suffers and dies, those who observe it can better prepare themselves for their own fate.