No Man Is An Island Analysis

Please explain, paraphrase, and analyze John Donne's poem "No Man is an Island." (Meditation XVII)

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The final lines of John Donne's poem or meditation are especially striking.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

The construction of the sentence seems a little odd, but in the 1600s this would have been a literal description of what people actually did. People would hear a church bell tolling and would know this meant that someone had died. Just like people today, they would be curious. If they lived in a small town they would guess that the deceased had to be one or two of the older people they knew personally. But they couldn't be sure. The only way to find out was to go in person to the church or to send someone to ask. The curious person might not want to go himself or herself because it might seem inappropriate to show such interest. So, more often than not someone else would be sent for that purpose. If the interested party had servants, he or she would probably send one of them. We see many servants being used as messengers in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Otherwise, a child might be sent to ask. Or a wife might send her husband--although a husband probably wouldn't send his wife. Curiosity would be satisfied. 

Shakespeare wrote about these church bells in one of his most beautiful sonnets:

Sonnet 71
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if,--I say you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

Evidently it was the custom to ring a mourning bell at a certain time for every person who died. Those who heard it would know that it was tolling the passing of someone in that parish. They would know because the bell did not ring at that hour except to announce someone's death. No doubt many people would "send to know for whom the bell tolls." It could cause quite a flurry in those quieter days. Everybody on the streets would be talking about it. It would be big news. It was a primitive way of communicating compared to what we have today with our telephones, radios, television, computers, and other technology. But it was effective.

When John Donne tells...

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