John Donne Meditation XVII from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)1
The Devotions were written, for the most part, in December of 1623 when Donne was recovering from (and possibly still suffering from) a serious illness that began in the previous November. At the time, many in London were suffering and died from a mysterious illness that included high fevers and “spots” (possibly typhus). When he began writing the Devotions, Donne had been Dean of St. Paul’s for two years. The Devotions are a personal exploration of his sickness and recovery in the context of Christian humanism. The complete (and rarely used) title is Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes.
They consist of 23 sequentially numbered sections, each of which opens with a “meditation” in which Donne explores an aspect of his illness, followed by an “expostulation” containing his reaction to his illness, much of it in the form of direct address to God, and concludes with a prayer. Donne’s illness was serious; he had little or no expectation of survival.The direct cause of his desire to write was his illness; he wrote during his illness. The Devotions are an example of a Protestant genre of the time in which the details of daily life were examined in a religious and spiritual context.
The work was registered at the Stationer’s Office in January of 1624 and published later that year, one of a handful of works published during Donne’s lifetime.
This post is concerned entirely with the Meditation portion of XVII, which follows.
XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris
Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.2
Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls3 may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member.4 And when she buries a man, that action concerns 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 translated5 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. There was a contention as far as a suit6 (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation7, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that this occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main8. 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. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him9 as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
1 The spelling here has been modernized, and I’ve added paragraph breaks. The text is based on the edition by John Sparrow. Cambridge University Press, 1923: 96–98.
2 This is Donne’s own translation.
3 The bell is simultaneously the passing bell that tolls once for each year of a deceased person’s life, and the bell that rings to call the congregation to service, and the bell that rang (until silenced by the dissolution of the monasteries and religious orders under Henry VIII) to call to prayers during the day.
4 The Christian church is the head of all people, as well as a body composed of all members of that church (i.e. all Christians).
5Translated, from Latin trānslātus means to “carry across,” or transfer, both from one language to another or one place or another. In a Christian or spiritual context Donne alludes to the idea that souls are translated from one level or sphere to another. By this means, Donne constructs an elaborate metaphor wherein he is a single member of the Christian body, one volume or book that is translated by God.
6 That is controversy in the form of a law suit.
7 For Donne’s “estimation,” today we would say self-esteem.
8 Main here means “mainland.”
9 “Defray him,” or rather defray or cover his expenses.
A Meditation on Donne’s Meditation XVII
When Donne wrote this meditation, he was deeply concerned about his own mortality. He had lost his beloved wife Anne More Donne. They had lost children to early death. London was in the throes of a mysterious disease sometimes called “spotted fever,” marked by a rash and prolonged fevers, and often, death.
The central theme moves quickly from contemplation of his own mortality, to the idea that he is merely a part of the greater Christian body, the Christian “volume,” one leaf out of many.
There are two touchstones from this meditation that have been absorbed into general consciousness (thanks in no small part to Heminway’s novel For Whom The Bell Tolls:
No man is an island, entire of itself; … 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.
Aside from the Christian concept of memento mori, embodied in the idea that the bell tolling another’s death is a reminder of our own inevitable death, these passages have always been a reminder to me that we are all part of humanity. We are, as Donne put it earlier, leaves in the same volume. We are all “involved” in mankind, part of a single body; we are not islands, we are connected to each other. Thus, any man’s death, (or woman’s; I do think Donne very much included women in his man/mankind) diminishes all of us; we are made less by it.
Ultimately, for me, this meditation reminds me that we are all part of something larger, and by emphasizing our connection to each other, we are emphasizing our connections to something larger than our separate selves.