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.