"For Whom the Bell Tolls" - John Donne

Portrait of John Donne painted just before his death in 1631.
Portrait of John Donne painted just before his death in 1631. | Source
Part of the original house where John Donne lived in Pyford, England.
Part of the original house where John Donne lived in Pyford, England. | Source

John Donne 1572 - 1631

You are probably thinking, Ernest Hemingway and his famous novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," right? Well Hemingway took the words from John Donne for the title of his novel as the bells were tolling for Jordan, his hero and protagonist in his novel. But, exactly in what writing did the words originate? They originated in John Donne's prose essay, Devotions upon Emergent Occcasions: Meditation XVII.

John Donne was a 17th century English poet, satirist, lawyer and Protestant priest. In his younger years, he lived the life of an English rake, womanising, drinking, recreational pursuits and pasttimes, and travel. He had a great time and wrote about it in his sensual love poems. Many of his poems are to or dedicated to his mistress of the moment. But, in 1601, Donne secretly married Anne Moore, had twelve children with her, and became a changed man.

After being imprisoned for a while by Anne's father, who was against the marriage, he came out poor and having to provide for a family. Donne's and Anne's marriage was a happy one, but gone were his carefree days as a bachelor. Now, he had to find more serious pursuits.

By 1615, he had become an Anglican priest and although he didn't want to take the orders of a priest, he was forced to do so by King James I who insisted he do so. By 1621, Donne had been appointed as Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and would hold that post until he died.

Because life became a more serious struggle from him, Donne's poety and writng reflected this. His later poetry and writings developed a more somber and pious tone and reflected the increasing gloominess and depair he was feeling. The tone of his writings changed to reflect the negation and hopelessness he sometimes felt. Also at this time, Donne experienced ill health, which also entered as a factor into his writings.

Being the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, he had many occasions to write prose sermons and meditations for recitation to his congregation. Although he wrote poetry until his death, and is considered the finest of the metaphysical poets of 17th century England, his prose writings cannot be ignored. One of his most frequently quoted is the Meditation XVII.

In the Meditation XVII, Donne writes great ornate prose. At the time he wrote this, 1624, he was quite ill, and in this meditation, he talks closely of dying. This is one of his serious moments when he contemplates his own death. Bells tolling in the area both literally and figuratively, were to Donne, summons of his death to come. (He did not die until 1631) Therefore, this is the subject of his Meditation - the bells tolling meant his death was imminent.

In this Meditation, Donne talks about what should concern him and all mankind when faced with the tolling of the bell. When a child is baptised, he said, the action concerned him, and, therefore, when a man is buried that concerns him, too:

"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."

Donne goes on to state that God's hand is in everything. The bell that tolls for worship and the sermon, calls not only the whole congregation, but also Donne who is brought near the door by his sickness. When one hears the bell, whether someone from the congregation or Donne himself, each one is united with God. Donne states:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part

of the main."

Just as a piece of earth is washed away from the European continent by the sea, Europe is the less for it, and, therefore, with each man's death, we are the less for it. And he continues:

"Each 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."

According to Donne, we are all connected - a piece of the main - therefore, we should mourn each man's death as if it were our own. Donne goes on to say that affliction is a treasure we should all be glad to have, because we are made fit for God by affliction. Through affliction and tribulation in our lives we are brough closer to God and we learn that God is our only security.

As you can see, Donne's words and message of his Meditation are far from the sensual poetry he wrote in his younger years. Although, I have an appreciation for all of Donne's poetry and certainly his metaphysical conceits, this Meditation piece is by far my favorite of Donne's. We learn from Donne that when the bell tolls, be concerned for whomever it tolls, because, since we are all connected as mankind, it really tolls for each of us. We need to love and take care of each other.


Source: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I.


Copyright (c) Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved

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Comments 16 comments

Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Suzette, another very interesting piece here! I loved your thoughts at the end of what it means when the bell tolls, very insightful. God bless. In His Love, Faith Reaper


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you, Faith. Donne is an interesting writer - almost like he had a split personality with his early life and later life. So different and such different writings. I have always loved the words from this Meditation and I think his words are so insightful. Thanks for the visit. Much appreciated!


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Did you do this just for me? Even if you didn't, thank you thank you, thank you.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter: I am a John Donne fan, but yes, you inspired me to go on. I do love this particular Meditation of his and I have for a long time. I have always loved his conceits and writing about Donne brought back such great memories of college. LOL. Glad you enjoyed this piece and thanks so much for visiting!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, fascinating reading, and such a wise man, yes we are all connected. amazing that saying was his! never realised that, the meditation, the words that were so familiar how did I not know who it was? thanks suzette, at last I can say yes I know the man! lol!


brianlokker profile image

brianlokker 4 years ago from Washington DC metro area

I love Donne's metaphor of mankind as a book, and his statement that a person's death means that a chapter is being translated into a better language. I hope the bell doesn't toll for me quite yet, but when I do hear it, I'll try to keep that image in mind.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I am again astounded, suzette. I had to get up away from my laptop and take in the fact that Donne wrote the phrase I so often use and believe in, "No man is an island." I, too, believe in the connectedness of everyone and everything living. What particularly struck me is not his belief in this concept, but the fact that even in his youth, whether he was acutely aware of his belief or not, he wrote in a methodology that used connection to solidify his meaning. Somehow, I think John Donne and I are related, at least, in spirit. Magnificent piece, suzette. You are an inspiration. I am eternally grateful that you and I crossed paths.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

I am with Mhatter99. Thank you, thank you. Donne was a word genius. This Meditation is so inspired that one could meditate on it for days, pardon to the pun please. You bright him to life all over again in a way that honors him and enlightens the reader. Now I shall be reading Donne all day when I am supposed to be writing.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy-so glad you enjoyed this piece also. It is this meditation that is my favorite and why I love Donne so much. I had picked up my anthology from college and was flipping through it checking out sonnets, and decided to write these on Donne. I may do another one on his sonnets. You will recognize his words there also. Perhaps you and Donne are soulmates. You certainly are a natural poetry writer. My goal right now is to someday write a sonnet-the reason I was looking at sonnets. I'm glad our paths have crossed also and I'm so thrilled that you got so much out of reading these Donne hubs. You have the heart and soul of a poet, Amy, and your trials and tribulations in life are what have made you such a good poet. When I taught poetry in my classes, it was always the students who had been through a lot that were the best poets. So sometimes those trials and tribulations give you an edge for writing such good poetry that maybe I don't have. I've had my own trials and tribulations, but we are all different. Don't underestimate yourself, Amy, or sell yourself short. YOU are quite a light in this world and your poetry is the truth and the proof. I wish you all the best. I'm hoping to open my New Yorker magazine and see one or more of your poems in there someday.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

You just summed up the feelings I have grown into, Suzette. The turn of events I have encountered have not been for naught. Last night, I went to The New Yorker online after deciphering the process of transposing word documents to PDF, and submitted about 3 of my poems. I may follow up by printing and mailing them, as I am unsure that the PDF files went, which is the only method for sending via cyberspace to The New Yorker. The magazine notes that sometimes it is 3-month wait if chosen for publication. I'd hate to be hoping all that time to find my submittals never made it!!! Thank you, Suzette, for firing me up.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

I agree - sometimes snail mail isn't so bad, especially as a follow-up. Good luck, I wish you the best and my fingers and toes are all crossed. LOL


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Nell: Thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed this one, too. I know you studied Donne in school, you have just forgotten. Or maybe you were absent that day - that's what I always say when I don't remember something from school. LOL He is one of your country's greatest poet and these, I believe, are his greatest words. We are all connected - people need to remember we are all in this together. The world is crazy, insane sometimes, but no one is an island. Thanks so much for reading and I appreciate your comments as always!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi brian: Yes, I love that particular quote in this Meditation and it is not often quoted. I think it is very soothing to know that our chapter is not torn out of the book when we die, but that it is translated and made better. What a comforting thought. I'm so glad you connected with that quote. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments. I always enjoy your hubs so much, too. Thanks for the visit.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Oh Hyphen: You are always such a delight. The same thing happens to me, I get waylaid reading literature some days and nothing else gets done. LOL. Thanks so much for reading this. Donne is a genius, isn't he. Of all his Meditations and sermons, this one has always been my favorite. I also love the book conceit - it is such a comforting thought, that we are not torn out of the book when we die. I agree, with you, one can meditate on this Meditation of his for hours and hours. But, we must keep writing, now. LOL Thanks for the visit, Hyphen - I always enjoy one from you.


ChristyWrites profile image

ChristyWrites 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

Thanks for sharing about Donne, nice to learn more about him. I did not know about the beginnings of For whom the bell tolls either... I love the intersection where literature and history meet!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Christy: I agree with you. It is interesting with literature and history intersect. Literature, after all, tells us about ourselves or the culture it is written in and about. I can't imagine a world without literature. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I appreciate your visit.

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