No Man is an Island

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No Man is an Island

by John Donne

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 bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.


Here we have a poetic masterpiece that extroverts have been weaponizing against introverts for four centuries.

This famous “poem” above is actually just a portion of John Donne’s Meditation XVII.

The poem is a non-standard sonnet in structure with only a few scattered rhymes (“sea,” “me,” and “thee.”) While most sonnets are structured as an “octave” and a “sestet” with the “volta” beginning at the sestet, this poem is somewhat different. The “volta” (i..e. the turn) occurs in line 10 rather than in line 9 as is more customary. We can identify the “volta” here because the Speaker’s perspective changes to the first person in line 10. The placement of the colon at the end of line 9 also serves as a signal for the turn.

The poem utilizes a technique known as “anaphora” – which is the repetition of a word or phrase as the beginning of a line. Both lines 7 ad 8 begin with “As well as if a” to bring emphasis to a comparison between mankind and the land itself.

The poem also utilizes my favorite (favorite because I like the word itself) technique, enjambment. Enjambment is when you end a line in the middle of a thought and in-so-doing rush the reader forward to the next line to complete the thought. We see that occur here at the end of line 8 leading into line 9 and again in line 12 leading into line 13.

The poem starts in lines one through four with a metaphor comparing mankind to land. The Speaker starts with the argument that a man cannot be an island – he must be part of the continent. In lines five through eight, the metaphor continues. Donne argues that the larger land mass losing a clod is a loss – just as a community losing an individual is a loss. His argument is from the perspective of the larger collective and not from that of the individual. The metaphor choice is interesting inasmuch as Donna knows – as does the reader – that islands exist and that some men live in relative isolation. The loss to the collective does not render them non-existent. Perhaps the point then is not that a man in isolation cannot exist but that he does not matter. Whatever he might do or achieve will not even be remembered without connection to others.

Starting line ten, the perspective of the work changes to the first person. The Speaker tells us that any man’s death diminishes him. The notion is that a loss to the collective is also a loss to each individual within the collective. The examination of the death of an individual concludes in lines twelve through fourteen with a metaphor. The “bell toll” is a reference to church bells announcing a death. The Speaker instructs the reader that when he or she hears the sound, do not ask who died. He tells us that when anyone dies, we also died. That idea is in keeping with line ten.

[10] Any man’s death diminishes me,
[11] Because I am involved in mankind,
[12] Therefore, send not to know
[13] For whom the bell tolls,
[14] It tolls for thee.

Who is John Donne?

John Donne (/dʌn/ DUN; 22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English poet, scholar, soldier and secretary born into a recusant family, who later became a cleric in the Church of England. Under royal patronage, he was made Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (1621–1631). He is considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His poetical works are noted for their metaphorical and sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigramselegies, songs, and satires. He is also known for his sermons.

Donne’s style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. These features, along with his frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, his tense syntax and his tough eloquence, were both a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry and an adaptation into English of European baroque and mannerist techniques. His early career was marked by poetry that bore immense knowledge of English society and he met that knowledge with sharp criticism. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry is the idea of true religion, something that he spent much time considering and about which he often theorised. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic and love poems. He is particularly famous for his mastery of metaphysical conceits.

Despite his great education and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends. He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children. In 1615 he was ordained deacon and then Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Holy Orders and only did so because the king ordered it. He also served as a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614.

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