When I was a college underclassman in the early 1970s, we studied a short poem by British author John Donne, a poem called “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” At the time, as an immature young man, I thought I understood the poem, but I realize now my understanding at that time was purely intellectual. Recently, approximately 50 years after I first read that poem, it came to visit me again, and I finally have a better appreciation for the message and a spiritual and an emotional understanding that I could not possess so early in my life.
For Whom The Bell Tolls by John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
When I initially read the first four lines of this poem, I thought I had grasped the entire message: teamwork. As a high-school and college athlete, I quickly assumed that Donne was extolling all the athletic clichés that I had heard through the years: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team,’”; “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and “Your teammate is your brother.” At that naïve moment in my life, my college baseball team meant everything to me, and I could not see beyond my boyish and innocent perspective.
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 manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
When I read lines five through nine, I still inhabited my isolated little world. When Donne mentioned a “clod” being “washed away by the sea,” I assumed he was writing about an injured teammate, and again I resorted to the oft repeated mantra of coaches and players everywhere: “When one player goes down, someone else has to step up and fill in.” Even though I was reading a poem written roughly 400 years earlier and on another continent, and even though I had a pretty good idea that the author was not a college athlete, I was content to force my limited reality onto Donne’s ideas. Only when I read the final five lines did I begin to take the poem seriously.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
“Death.” The word hit me hard. When I was 12, my four-year-old sister, Peggy, had passed away, so I thought I knew then what Donne was expressing: We will all lose loved ones, and those losses will “diminish” us and make us feel as if we, too, are dying. And all of that, of course, is true. In the last ten years or so, I have lost my mother, my father, and my daughter Maria, and each of those deaths has brought me to tears and created a deep ache in my heart. Yet, I now realize Donne’s poem penetrates even deeper.
For Donne did not say, “Each death of a loved one diminishes me.” No, he wrote, “Each man’s death diminishes me.” Donne’s view is comprehensive, all encompassing. He is writing about all “mankind,” every person listed every day in the obituaries. On one hand, that idea seems extreme, but as I age, I have come to experience Donne’s truth, a deep truth expressed not only in the final five lines but throughout all 14 lines of his poem.
In the last few months, three men, all about my age, from my childhood neighborhood have died. I will soon turn 68, so I realize that I will lose more and more contemporaries each year, but these last three passings have hit me harder than deaths of other contemporaries in the past. Perhaps it’s the frequency in this case that grabbed me and shook me. Or maybe I am more rattled now because I also find myself praying for so many old friends, classmates, and acquaintances who are seriously sick or suffering. The firm foundation of my youth is deteriorating, gradually and relentlessly, one “clod” at a time.
What is happening to me is, no doubt, happening to others or has already happened to them. I find myself pondering my losses more frequently and contemplating my demise more often as well. In the midst of all these thoughts, Donne’s poem returned to me, and I wanted to know more about the man and his message.
In my research, I discovered that Donne’s “poem” wasn’t even really written as a poem. Rather, he had included those lines in an essay he entitled “Meditation 17.” At the time, Donne was about 50 years old and suffering from a serious illness. Some historians say Donne was so sick that he worried that the tolling bell indicated his own imminent death. As he wrote about that idea later, after he had recovered, he also realized firsthand that even if the bell were tolling for a neighbor, Donne himself was also dying a bit because of that individual’s passing. That’s how I feel right about now.
My purely intellectual knowledge of death, of all of our deaths, has finally moved from my brain to my heart and to my soul. I know now in a way I never knew before that we are all dying; we are all moving closer to our final destination. I saw a poignant cartoon a while back in the Sunday newspaper that showed an older man walking his dog through the forest on a fall day, and the caption from artist and writer Ram Dass read: “We’re all just walking each other home” (October 14, 2018). How true indeed.
Bob, Joe, and Scott, I hope that you all have met your Creator in heaven, and I pray that the loved ones you’ve left behind are also drawing closer to their Creator in the midst of their suffering and loss.