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John Donne in his poem “No Man is an Island” explores the interconnectedness of all people. Donne essentially makes the case that because each person is a part of the larger whole that is humanity itself, people need one another and are better off together than they are alone. The passage is a well-known passage from Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions rather than a whole poem.
The Devotions explore what it means to be a human being and the relationship between humanity and God. They were written in 1623 while Donne was suffering from a terrible illness. The 23 sections of this book each include a “Meditation,” a “Expostulation,” and a “Prayer.” The section in question is from the 17th “Meditation.”
About the poet
Born into a family of recusants, John Donne was an English poet, scholar, soldier, and secretary who subsequently joined the Church of England as a cleric. He was appointed Dean of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral with royal support (1621–1631). He is regarded as the foremost poet who embodies metaphysical poets.
His poetical creations, which include sonnets, love poems, religious poetry, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, lullabies, and satires, are known for their figurative and sensual style. He is renowned for his sermons as well.
No man is an island, Entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.
The speaker opens “For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island” with a direct and memorable statement. “No man is an island,” he asserts. Nobody is completely isolated from the rest of the world. Every person is a component of the human race. Donne then shifts into one of his well-known figurative conceits. He likens the connection between people and the rest of the planet to that between continent-sized land masses. All of them are “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.
The notion is continued in the following quatrain. He continues by claiming that anything the continent lost, from a “promontory” to a “clod” or a “manor,” would make it less. This is related to people and how each loss or death harms society as a whole. Because of our interconnectedness, we cannot afford to be careless with one another’s lives.
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.
Donne builds on the points he established earlier by stating that “thine friends'” loss is just as important as “yours” in the sestet, the sonnet’s final six lines. When one person is hurt, everyone is hurt. The poet then addresses himself and his relationship to “mankind” in the first person of the poem. He claims that “Each man’s death” makes him less than.
He is “engaged” in how people function. The final three sentences deal specifically with death and what it implies when a fresh death occurs. He represents death with the sound of a church bell. He tells the listener not to inquire “For whom” it tolls because it “tolls for” you when it rings. It is as if everyone has passed away whenever somebody dies.