No Man Is An Island John Donne Meaning

man walking alone on island beach
The phrase “ask not for whom the bell tolls” has been used in modern books, movies, and even heavy metal music, but it has been around for nearly 400 years. English poet John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” was the first instance of its use in literature. On this page we will go into detail about the quote's origins and meaning.

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Where and when was Donne’s quote published?

“No Man Is an Island” is part of John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and several steps in my Sicknes [sic]. Described as a prose-poem, Donne wrote the Devotions while recovering from a near-death illness. Originally published in 1624, the book was written in the style of religious devotions, works read by Christians as a way to reflect and become closer to God.

What is the setting underscoring Donne’s quote?

Donne wrote the Devotions while recovering from a long sickness. The book is split into 23 parts, one for each day of his recovery. “No Man is an Island” is the seventeenth section of the book.

Donne was considered one of the core metaphysical poets of the time. Metaphysical writing was characterized by a less rigid line structure than traditional poetry. Metaphysical poems usually included the exploration of complex, philosophical ideas; in the case of the Devotions, Donne probes themes of life, death, and sickness.

Some argue that the Devotions had political motivations. The book may have been veiled advice to Charles I, to whom the book is dedicated. Charles became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1625, the year after the Devotions’ publication. Whether it’s true or not that Donne meant to advise the heir apparent, it’s clear Charles needed all the help he could get. His reign was a short and violent one, during which he gained a reputation for ruling as a tyrant. After a civil war that left tens of thousands dead, Charles was ultimately tried and executed for treason. Donne’s alleged advice, had Charles taken it, was that decisions (even those made in secret) would have consequences for the new king and all of his subjects.

Some cultural context would be helpful here: in the 1600s (and for a long time before and after), news traveled slowly. Church bells were used to communicate important messages. They called people to prayer, announced danger during war, celebrated victories, and told time.

In England, the “death knell” was a series of bell tolls used to announce the death of a member of the community. Specific tolling patterns announced the death of a man, woman, or child, usually followed by a ringing of the deceased’s age. In close, small communities, this was sometimes enough information for people to know who had passed. In larger communities, it at least notified the town that an important person had died. From there, concerned people could send a messenger to determine who had died.

What is meant by “No Man Is an Island”?

“No Man Is an Island” can be split into three distinct parts. First, Donne makes an assertion: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” In other words, no one stands alone. We are all connected to each other and part of the overall community.

Second, Donne provides metaphors of how loss can affect the whole: “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.” A clump of dirt washed off of the European coast, however insignificant it may seem, diminishes the size of Europe as a whole, the same as the loss of something more “important” would diminish Europe. Then Donne turns to the object of his metaphor: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Donne is part of the human community and connected to those around him. Therefore the death of a member of that community is a loss to him on a personal level. When a person dies, an element of the community is lost forever.

With this rather sobering thought in mind, Donne arrives at the famous phrase: “And therefore never send to know for whom / the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” In other words, “don’t ask who’s just died; it’s you, it’s all of us.” A death is tragic and deeply personal, whether it’s the death of the self, a friend, or a stranger.

Over the years, literature has made use of Donne’s famous lines. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls includes “No Man Is an Island” as an epitaph. Published in 1940, the novel follows an American volunteer through the bloodshed and violence of the Spanish Civil War. Donne’s quote clearly resonated with Hemingway in his depiction of a conflict that turned communities against each other, often pitting friend against friend.

In 1984, Metallica released a song of the same title. The song references a scene from the book in which five men die in a bombing while defending a hilltop. Their deaths are inevitable, with the book’s main characters powerless to stop it from happening. Scenes like this one depict a world in which people have clearly lost sight of Donne’s thought: that we are all connected, and that a loss of one is a loss to all.

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