No Man is an Island

No Man Is An Island

1624 – John Donne Meditation XVII – from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.

Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: 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. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest. !

If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

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.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. 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 man 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 dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

When I looked at the road sign for the Sedalia Center with its doleful message that the Celtic Festival was cancelled, I thought to post “No Man Is An Island Entire To Himself” there instead. It spoke to me at this time when we are so torn about what it means to take care of our, selves and where our security lies.
I have had the good fortune to learn how to read literature from earlier times, and thought others might enjoy reading this famous passage in its full context as a way to think about our current situation. I offer this reading as a balm and a resource.


In 1624, John Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Before he became a clergyman, he was a well-known poet of the Metaphysical group, young men who were fired up not only by sex and the daring of youth, but by science and religion both — and who mixed them all together in some of the most brilliant poetry written in the English language. The existence of the North American continent had only just been discovered by Europeans, and the prospect of this New World was dizzying. Science enthralled them, but did not threaten their religious beliefs; it offered news ways to be dazzled by the glories of God’s creation. When he was a young man, Donne often used religious language to describe sexual desire and rapture. As an older man and Dean of St. Paul’s, he often used sexual references in writing about religious matters. The Metaphysicals were a quirky group, but there was nothing superficial about their art or their intentions.!

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that ponders those things that are beyond what we can know physically — what we can measure and build empirical knowledge around. Meta is a Greek prefix that means beyond, but includes the idea of building upon what is already established. (When I found out that in contemporary usage, meta generally means self- referential, it occurred to me that our screen usage these days is an example of meta self- absorption.)!

The google dictionary defines Metaphysics as “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.” After a discussion of the word’s etymology, it offers this very useful insight: ‘the science of things transcending what is physical or natural’.!

For Donne and most of his contemporaries, the world was imbued with the sacred. Everything on earth bore the mark of God’s hands, and was held within them. So the exploding field of physics, the study of the physical world, was also imbued with the spirit of God. The wonders science was revealing were the glories of God, and the science these young poets got drunk on was Meta physics: the revelations of God’s handiwork to be contemplated with attention, an amazing new trove for the poetic imagination. !

Donne’s Meditations were the mature work of a man who had dedicated himself to the religious life, essays written to ponder the great questions of life and death, faith and grace and evil, as an act of religious devotion, but also and always a literary exercise. At this time in human history when we are confronted not with comforting and familiar images on our screens but with a force from the physical world that poses fundamental questions about our security and place in that world, this particular Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions — in Donne’s case and in ours, a sickness raging through society — is a good place to wander, and wonder at the mysteries of life and of human genius. I just realized what an Emergency is: a situation that suddenly Emerges into our lives and must be dealt with immediately. This probably isn’t quite what the poet meant by Emergent Occasions, but it does provide insight into their nature.!

1624 – John Donne Meditation XVII – from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.

Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and

perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see

my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

The narrator, bedridden with illness, hears the church bell softly tolling for someone, another, and wonders whether that man hears his own death knell. Then he realizes that he himself could be that man, much nearer death than he realizes. Maybe the people taking care of him have notified the church that he is about to die. His imagination responds not so much to that possibility, as that it recognizes the universal bond that connects all mankind.

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: 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. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

The bell tolls from the church tower, and reminds the narrator of the Church, the institution rather than the building, the union of living souls who join in worship. This paragraph begins the underlying metaphor of the meditation: the absolute interconnectedness of the faithful that is illustrated in the body of the Church. Metaphors were catnip for the jazz cats of the Metaphysical group — they seized on them as concrete ways to portray ideas that language exhausts itself trying to analyze. So the body of the sufferer, and the body — whichever one whose time it is — of the dying, are parts of that collective body that is the Church. This idea carries all the rest of the imagery that abounds in the essay, because the body of the Church is also the Body of Christ, and that is what makes the union of its members sacred.

The metaphor then switches, but its premise grows out of the sacred connection of Church members to each other — the body of the Church — through the Body of Christ. All mankind is a book comprised of chapters — all individual and unique, and all units of the same story. A human life as a chapter in the great Book is a metaphor; what Donne does with it, elaborating the idea and making the image hold to describe what happens at death — translation into a better language — then taking the idea of translation to consider the translators God employs to effect the change, finally completes itself with the beautiful and tender image of God gathering all the precious leaves scattered from the battered chapters of individual lives into a single volume written in the language of salvation and our final unity. The Metaphysical Poets were famous for these extended metaphors and delighted in contriving them. These extended metaphors came to be called “conceits.” John Donne was the undisputed master of the conceit.

As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest.

Recognizing himself as only one of many lingering near death’s door, the narrator recalls another office of the bell: calling the faithful to hear the word of God. That bell surely speaks both to the preacher who must deliver the sermon and to the other members of the Church to listen to what he has to say. Their gathering is a physical as well as a spiritual assembly that is called into motion by the Bell, whose voice cuts through the noise of human affairs: its tone is authoritative, and calls us to awareness. It is the physical instrument by which God’s voice reaches human ears.

He then recalls an incident when there arose among the religious communities an argument as to which religious order should get to be the first to ring the bell that calls to morning prayers. There is a stifled chuckle at the verdict: whoever gets up earliest should ring the bell. Duh. !
But why does he bring this up?

If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.

The Bell’s ringing of the daily devotions can become routine, but in his state of heightened awareness —helpless in a sickbed at the time the light fades away, the death knell tolling through the city — the narrator realizes “the dignity” of this call to evening prayer: You never know when it announces not only your religious duty, but your ultimate Translation. There is nothing routine in the realm of the sacred. We may be overwhelmed with mundane affairs, we may be overcome by illness or some other Emergent Occasion that demands our attention, but the voice of the Bell cuts through it all, calling us to the ground of our being. So the lesson of the squabbling clergymen returns as a reminder that each time we are called to gather together in the body of the Church is a great and important moment in our lives. Every day, over and over, he (and she) who rises to the call to prayers is “united to God.” Reach it, grasp it, embrace the opportunity it offers to merge into universal union.!

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

Blazing phenomena always grab our attention. Who doesn’t look hungrily at that first burst of morning sun? We can’t but notice the church bell when it sounds. Do we realize that the bell that tolls for another person is “passing a piece” of ourselves “out of this world”? Once we are aware, we understand its “dignity”: it is a presence we cannot ignore.

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.

And so we arrive at the heart of the matter, the core truth the meditation reveals. It comes in a comprehensive new metaphor that brings together the bell, the body, and loss, yet cuts away into new territory. The conceit is fully formed here, bringing together all the previous threads as evidence for the insight it reveals.

Island and Continent are the image of the individual and society, and the metaphor holds together through the panorama of the land mass, the sea and its tides, the loss of a farm to flooding, includes the political bonds and those between neighbors, and deposits us at the unavoidable conclusion. As if the sick man’s spirit has risen from his frame to look down upon the world, he sees and understands that he himself is of the universal clay as the Lord has made it.

The solid images disrupt the meditative mood, rearing up out of the quiet chain of thought the sick man has been following. As a chapter is an essential part of the book, so a human being is part of the main, the whole continent. No man is an island, entire of itself; we are all parts of the continent, and whether we are great or small, a clod of earth or a towering mountain, the whole is less when we are washed away —a piece of the continent lost in translation.

It’s worthwhile to linger with this passage that has resonated with people down through the centuries. It’s a great example of how the way something is said has so much to do with its impact. The language is no longer meditative but decisive and clear. The thinker has come to an inescapable conclusion: “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.” He has found the answer to his question.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. 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.

The misfortune of another is as meaningful to you as the loss of your own home place, or the home of a friend. !
So now our meditation has become an argument: the narrator has made a debatable statement and has to defend his position that our involvement in each other’s welfare is absolute. He undertakes this defense with typical flourish, and again with a humorous note. To the question of why anyone should seek out more misery than the human condition already allots to the average person, he counters with the statement that of course we should, because affliction properly borne matures and ripens us, makes us “fit” for our spiritual journey.

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 man 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 dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

The final metaphor of the journey carries the meditation to its conclusion: an assessment of what it profits a man to hoard treasure in a form that is of no use to him as he travels to his destination.

Tribulation, he maintains, is God’s gift to us, if we understand its value. (On its face, the claim is outrageous — a surefire favorite device for Donne and the Metaphysical group. It provides the opportunity to break it open, tear it apart, and resolve what appears to be a ridiculous contradiction.) Suffering is the gold we carry with us through life, but it is made useful only when we take on the suffering of others as our own, because only through identifying with the common humanity of other people do we come to understand our own vulnerability, and seek protection in the shared divinity our humanity bestows upon us.

We in the Twenty-first Century may no longer share the devout world view the Seventeenth afforded. But the existential questions have not changed. The alchemy Donne’s invalid evokes, the trick that turns fear and hardship into charity and courage, is to see the other in ourselves, and to understand that it is that connection that makes us human, and makes us whole.!
It’s a great piece of writing that connects us to an earlier time keenly resonant of our own. I thought it worthwhile to revisit, and to work through it to find what it has to tell us in our time of trial. That’s why literature is such a lasting treasure. It illuminates the human mind and heart over centuries and across continents and the islands outlying them, especially thanks to translation.

It’s been a long time since I read On The Road, but as I remember, Jack Kerouac found out on Route 66 that We are all One.
Be well, and crack open that book that’s been lying around.


About the Author-

Doris McCabe

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