If I have one gripe about how literature was taught to us, it was that while explaining the poem or an essay, there was a lack of proper literary context, both historical and topical.  Throwing a bunch of fancy words and their literary meaning at the poor students and expecting  them to be ready for the upcoming tests is not good enough and is no way to get them excited about the subject.  Even if the teacher has the right intentions, from my perspective, no amount of information surrounding the author is too much when it comes to the timing and the times of his or her work, and if available the reason, the whereabouts, and the inspiration behind that work.  Provide a proper context and I believe it will do wonders to the overall comprehension and interest of students in literature, but I don’t think I am revealing anything that most good teachers don’t already know about.  Thanks to all the invaluable contributions on the internet, compiling this information behind every work should be easier than ever.

I first read this essay from John Donne back when I was in high school because it was in our English text book and I had to.  17th Century English literature didn’t evoke much interest in me, plus, just like this essay, authors of that time wrote in metaphors and while I did like the idea of figurative personifications, similes and metaphors, for someone who is still learning the language, it wasn’t easy to comprehend what the hell they were saying.  Yet, if you enjoy reading and have the patience to stick with it, you realize that figurative work is one of the reasons you enjoy reading to begin with and it is these concepts that add beauty to literature and open up new worlds within.  I’ve read this piece a few more times since my school days, and it tends to get better and better each time.

John Donne (1572 – 1631) wrote this in 1624, as part of a series of reflections when he was recovering from a serious illness compiled under Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.  The work consists of twenty-three parts describing each stage of the sickness. Each part is further divided into a Meditation, an Expostulation, and a Prayer.  Meditation XVII is perhaps the best-known part of the work.  Despite his great education and poetic talents, John Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. In 1615 he became an Anglican priest and, in 1621 was appointed the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

This essay is well known for creating two popular phrases still reused in today’s literature  – “for whom the bell tolls” and “no man is an island”.  When you hear “for whom the bell tolls”, you think of Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel with the same title, but Hemingway points to the source of the title to Meditation XVII in his work.  Hearing funeral bell tolls to people then are akin to perusing the obituaries for people now. It was traditionally rung three times for a man and two times for a woman followed by a pause and then a toll for every year of age for the deceased.  Whether it is created out of his own personal struggles with health or not, I like this essay for Donne’s  portrayal of his belief in what another person’s death means to the rest of us, how events in one life have an affect directly or indirectly in lives of others.  When someone else dies, we all die a bit, but because of how we are connected with each other, you leave behind a piece of you even after your own death.

John Donne (1572 - 1631)

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls 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. 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 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. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, 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 that 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 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 bells 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 neighbours. 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 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 him 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.