John Donne: 'for whom the bell tolls'

Outside St Paul's Cathedral, London, is a memorial bust of John Donne sculpted by Nigel Boonham and unveiled in 2012.

John Donne (1572 - 1631) was a Dean of St Paul's. He died on 31 March 1631 which is why the Church of England commemorates him today. John Donne is remembered as priest and poet.

Inside St Paul's is a 17th century memorial statue of Donne, one of the few to survive the 1666 great fire of London. 

Many years ago as an adolescent studying the English metaphysical poets I fell in love with Donne's poetry - his erotic love poetry and his religious poetry. Later I discovered other works by him including sermons and philosophical writings.

Probably the best known of John Donne's words was not written as poetry but as part of a prose devotional meditation, although often quoted as poetry. I have been thinking of the quote below especially this week while feeling particularly sad following 29 March 2017 when Article 50 was triggered to start the process of the UK leaving the EU. Europe will be the less after 'Brexit' and so will the UK in my view. Here's the quote:

"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." (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation 17 Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris).

The meditation from which that quote comes was written while John Donne was ill, hearing the tolling of a bell that marked someone's death and contemplating his own death. In the same mediation he has another powerful metaphor of the inter-relatedness of humanity with one another and with God. As a book lover this one particularly appeals to me.


"...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; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness." (Meditation 17: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

As I contemplate my own death that will inevitably come at some unknown date in the future, I like Donne's resurrection metaphor of being "translated into a better language".

Looking again at the image of Boonham's bust of John Donne that heads the post, I wonder, what is John Donne looking at - physically and metaphorically? Any ideas?

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