By John Donne
From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
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.
“No Man Is an Island” is neither a proverb nor a poem. It’s a famous line by the English poet, John Donne in his “Meditation XVII.” John Donne wrote a famous prose work titled Devotions upon Emergent Occasion in 1624 which contains “Meditation XVII.” The work is a series of reflections which he wrote as he recovered from a serious illness. Each part of the work is divided into Mediation, a Prayer and an Expostulation. Mediation XVII is a part of the entire prose work which contains the quote: “No man is an island.” The phrase sounds like, and is, an old proverbial expression. Oddly, although it was coined in the 17th century, it only began to be used widely in the second half of the 20th century. This usage started around 1940 but was probably accelerated by the release of a film of the same name in 1962.
In “Meditation XVII,” Donne compares mankind to a continent. He sees each person as part of the continent and not as an island. He maintains that when a clod breaks off from any continent, such a continent becomes lesser than as it was initially. By this assertion, Donne is referring to the effect of death. When someone dies, mankind which he sees as a continent becomes shortened by that death of the individual.
“No man is an island” is the first of two proverbial phrases from “Meditation XVII.” The second was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. Just as Devotions upon Emergent Occasion is regarded as one of Donne’s greatest works, For Whom The Bell Tolls likewise is regarded as one of Hemingway’s best works. There’s some debate about what precisely what Donne meant by the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.” Some think that Donne was simply pointing out people’s mortality and that when a funeral bell was heard it was a reminder that we are nearer death each day, that is, the bell is tolling for us. Others view it more mystically and argue that Donne is saying we are all one and that, when one dies, we all die a little. This isn’t as bleak as it might sound, as the counterpoint would be that there is some part of the living in the dead and that we continue a form of life after death.
From the above, we can deduce some interpretations. “Meditation XVII” suggests that human beings should not live in isolation. We’re all interconnected to one another. No one stands alone like an island that is surrounded only by the sea. We need one another to survive in life. At a time like this, we should all remember that every human life is sacred.