Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

by John Donne
Start Free Trial

No Man Is An Island Analysis

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

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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 people not to send to know, it seems especially ominous. The bell is tolling for us--so we don't need to ask questions! There is a certain literal truth in the statement "It tolls for thee." When we hear about someone dying, we almost automatically think about the same inevitably thing happening to us sooner or later. We also, as Tolstoy suggests in his story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," think something like "I'm glad it's him and not me!"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles


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.

This famous verse of John Donne's, a great poet of the early 1600s, who was closely associated with the metaphysical school of poetry, is characterized by its unusual degree of intellectualism, but it is also highly dramatic in its cadences and repeition.  Characteristic of Donne's metaphysical poetry is the conceit, a fanciful metaphor that makes an unexpected and striking comparison, although it is briefer than those of the Elizabethan poets. The conceit in this poem is the surprising comparison of man to an island in a negative sense [as not being an island].

By means of this conceit, Donne contends that all humans share in every experience:

Any man's death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, there is a responsibility of one man for another that is implied. This concept has been passed down throughout the ages and into different cultures. For instance, the pioneering pilot and author, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry declares in his work, Le Petit Prince, "Etre homme, etre responsable" [To be man is to be made responsible]. 

Moreover, with no man existing alone, there is a community of man that shares in suffering. And, by empathizing with others' suffering, the individual recognizes the common humanity of all mankind. This concept was exemplified during World War II, for instance, with many Americans' convictions that the Western world had an obligation to fight Nazi Germany and its atrocities against Poland, Belgium, and France, as well as its bombings of Great Britain.  Indeed, then, when the death knell "tolls," it tolls for everyone. By the same token, when there is new life, all mankind shares in this, too.



Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial