Mr. Donne’s bell deserves another toll


There’s a good chance that when you were in high school you were told by your senior English teacher to read a rambling bit of business called “Meditation 17”, by John Donne. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember it, because it’s hardly a riveting page-turner. Which is a moot point anyway since it is blessedly brief enough to fit on just one page.

Donne was a contemporary of, and much overshadowed by, a fellow by the name of Shakespeare. But in that single essay — I confess to being totally ignorant of the 16 meditations that came before it or any that might have come after — he provided, buried amid the thorny wording, a couple of the most quoted lines in the English language.

“No man is an island” and “ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” both outlived Donne. And they will outlive you and me.

When they were written, in the early 1600s, there was a custom throughout Europe that when somebody died, the first thing a member of the family did was go to the local church to inform the priest, who rang the church bell. When townsfolk heard it they wondered, of course, who it was ringing for. It was the equivalent of us scanning the obituaries in the morning paper. A ritual that always reminds me of the comedian George Burns, who once said he checked them first thing every morning and, if he wasn’t in them, he made coffee.

In “Meditation 17,” John Donne says we shouldn’t even ask who that bell is tolling for, because it’s ringing for all of us. In other words, when one person dies, a little bit of all of us dies. Because, he contends, we are all part of humanity, and when humanity is diminished by a single soul we are the less for it. By the same token, when one person is in difficulty, we all should feel a little of the pain. We’re all interconnected, Donne figured. Thus the “no man is an island” proclamation.

To tell you the truth, in the senior English classes I used to teach I, for whole decades, flew through this particular piece in the curriculum quickly, because all of my attention was focused on the upcoming month full of Shakespeare and Hamlet. Sort of like paying scant attention to an interesting little town because a big city is just up ahead.

Then came a couple of years when I was given a couple of reminders to slow down and rethink Meditation 17. One was in the form of a mighty storm, the other an economic recession.

During Hurricane Ike, it became obvious that islands — be they real or metaphorical — don’t fare well in devastating tempests. We all had to depend on each other for a few weeks on the Gulf Coast, and many a house, mine included, that had electricity and undamaged roofs filled up with people who didn’t usually live there. And more than a few folks, when they’d finished picking up the limbs and debris from their own yard, reported for similar duty for neighbors who couldn’t do it for themselves.

The other time when it became abundantly clear that there’s no room for islands was when the economy took a nosedive. During these dark days most of us had to do a little more soul-searching and calculating than usual, to see how we could be of some assistance to people in suddenly dire circumstances, or to determine ways we could sacrifice or modify or put things off for a while. Like one of my former students who volunteered to come home from his university for a semester to live at home and take courses at a junior college because his mother was laid off at work. Like countless people who postponed trips, and families who decided, that Christmas, to draw names rather than give everybody presents. Like the young granddaughter of a friend  who told her mom that she didn’t really need a Hannah Montana video. That she just didn’t want her daddy to look so sad.

After those reminders I paid better attention to “Meditation 17” when I got to it every year. Because old John Donne was on to something with his “no man is an island” idea. A century or so later Benjamin Franklin would take up the theme again. “We must all hang together,” he mused, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Well said, gentlemen. We’re all in this together. And, together, we’ll all make it through just fine.


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