“No Man is an Island”
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 any manner of thy friends 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.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Lines from poetry always seem to creep into my thoughts when I least expect them, as do song lyrics and movie quotes.
This past week has been a whirlwind of activity. Spring and Winter are dancing for keeps, and we know Winter will lose its battle with Spring, as it always does.
Perhaps it is the winter chill and the spring warmth circling each other like a couple dancing the tango that has my mind drifting over lines written 500 hundred of years ago.
John Donne lived in the seventheeth century and was considered a metaphysical poet, a style of poetry in “which philosophical and spiritual subjects were approached with reason and often concluded in paradox,” according to “A Brief Guide of the Metaphysical Poets” on the website poetry.org.
The slow melt of winter often creates a wrestlessness in us that can emerge in many ways.
Donne’s poem, seems to represent the need for people to connect with others, and after months of ice and snow, many are eager to get out of the house and absorb the sun as they visit with friends and family.
The speaker of Donne’s poem compares “man” to an island, and tells us that we cannot live like islands alone, surrounded by a sea of silence.
The speaker also claims that any one of us is diminished when we lose that connection to other people, in the poem the connection is lost through death, but connections can be lost on other ways as well.
Like an island that is made less by the loss of its land, so too are we made less by the loss of even one friend.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker reminds us that we should “never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” that we should never ask for whom death calls, because death tolls for all of us.
I think this poem strikes me most at this time of year because as people crave connection, they also fear it, avoid it, or inadvertently destroy it.
We emerge from the hybernation and cabin fever status of winter ready to frolic through the hills.
We tend to make big plans for gatherings and travel, and as we barrel into the sun, we forget how lonely winter was.
With summer fast approaching, and big plans laid along the path to Fall, I want to remember that each step I take now needs to forge stronger ties and deeper friendships so that next winter is not so cold despite the freezing temperatures.
Donne seemed to recognize our need for one another — our need for relationship — and I think his poem reminds us that each day we live is precious and not promised.
“Live each day like it is your last,” comes to mind, but not in the sense that we should live recklessly and do whatever we want because we could die tomorrow.
Instead, I think this sentiment is more saying to living each day like you want to be remembered.
To do that, what must you do each day? Be kind? Show appreciation? Forgive ? Laugh — a lot?
While I know we live in a world of paradox, where fire and ice compete as much as good and evil, I think the warmth lies not outside of us, but within us.
If we can warm our hearts, then we will not be that island, but a string of them soaking up the sun.