In his Meditation XVII, published in 1623 as part of his work Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne wrote the following (translated into modern English), a work which has endured in passing along enduring and popular expressions to the English language, even if the work itself has remained obscure :
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.
Judging from the whole context of the meditation , we might figure that John Donne was himself a Catholic. And indeed, that proves to be the case for his early life, though he did later take orders as an Anglican priest and write anti-Catholic satires. Nonetheless, despite this flaw, Donne’s meditation, especially the portion here excerpted, is worthy of our commentary. And therefore it is also worthy of being known within its context as to how it has inspired artists as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and the Bee Gees.
The meditation as a whole reflects on suffering and death. Donne piously points out that all of us are connected to each other, and as believers are part of one body. Additionally, we are all part of a collective identity as mankind, subject to the common penalty of death for our sins. The notion that we are part of larger bodies and subject to collective judgment is one that John Donne and I share, but one that strikes against the atomistic conception of our time that believes that we are islands and that shows little concern or consideration for how our own lives and actions affect those of others.
Indeed, it is Donne’s intense identification with the suffering of other people, and his realization that the death and suffering of any person diminishes all of us, that leads him to reject the selfishness that leads people to be hard-hearted about their fellow man. Faced with a serious illness that nearly killed him (he eventually died seven years or so after the poem was published), he reflected on the spiritual benefits of his suffering and longed to see the eternal reward he expected upon death. Rejecting the selfishness and callousness so common in our own age, he wisely commented that no matter for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for us, for we suffer when anyone else suffers.
Interestingly enough, this same connection between the general community of mankind and an opposition to anarchy is made in the Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, which should have won the 1941 Pulitzer Prize . The protagonist of that novel has joined the Communists as opposed to the libertarian anarchists because of their greater order, and the divide between communists and libertarians in Spain allowed the Fascists to prevail, who were nothing if not “orderly.”
It is curious that just as John Donne pointed out that all of mankind is related and that our individual suffering can have beneficial results for ourselves and for the world, by reminding us of our common humanity, Hemingway’s protagonist Robert Jordan rejects suicide and instead sacrifices his life for what he believes is the common good. Interestingly enough, suicide was a common theme in the writings of both Ernest Hemingway and John Donne, who both had to face despair. John Donne prevailed, rising from his deathbed to give a sermon about death where he awaited the victory of eternal life, while Hemingway succumbed to despair as an old man himself.
This preoccupation with death shared by Donne and Hemingway is also shared, in a puzzling way, by the Bee Gees in their own mournful song “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” a beautiful song that was nearly completely ignored by American radio stations (though it was popular in the United Kingdom) from their album “Size Isn’t Everything.” In this song, the Bee Gees mourn the death of a relationship and the loneliness that results like an actual death .
For all of these artists, the metaphor of the tolling bell and the death for whom it tolls led to deep meditation on the vanity of life. For John Donne his reflections about death led him to think about the spiritual context of death as part of our collective experience and God’s sovereign control of the universe and also the benefits of death and suffering in preparing us for eternal life. Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, shared the collective approach of Donne, but turned its focus to military and political affairs rather than religious ones. For their part, the Bee Gees seem to be pondering personal relationships to the exclusion of greater collective concerns, though their use of the metaphor of the tolling bell signifies an attempt to place personal loneliness in a larger context.
Metallica also wrote a different song called “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” but it is mostly a song version of the Hemingway novel, not an original creation as the other three works discussed here . It is curious that the three works mirror each other so closely despite very different contexts. It may be that the gloomy meditation on death leads to similar thoughts and ideas, even when one is reflecting on sin, warfare, or failures at love. The fact that death is such a fundamental enemy of mankind, and of our hopes and aspirations, means that when the bell tolls for anyone, we hear it toll for us as well, knowing that we too will perish someday.