This past weekend two teenagers were killed in an auto accident on St. Helena Island. As is the case with most young death, there was no rhyme, no seeming reason, no point. In the aftermath of the accident, Facebook and other social media have been full of commentary from people close and not-so-close to the lost children. The themes vary, but they reflect both of the messages found in my title verse.
This haunting phrase has been widely misattributed, misquoted and misinterpreted. Victims of modern culture think it to have been written by a sodden Ernest Hemingway, and thereafter made into a movie. In truth, the line was authored by John Donne, the 17th century writer, poet and Chaplain to the Court of St. James, in what is known as Meditation XVII. Often written as “ask not for whom the bell tolls,” the actual form is thus:
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…
Any man’s death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind
Never send to know for whom the bells tolls;
It tolls for thee
As to interpretation, eastern mystics have co-opted the words of this Anglican priest, seeking to use them in the narrow context of the oneness of mankind. Donne clearly was making this point, and the fact that many of the social commentators on the loss of those two young people were not related and were not classmates demonstrates that, deep down, we feel every loss. We should, and do, share in every misfortune of mankind, whether it occurs close to us or at a distance. No man is an island; we know this as a function of instinct.
However, a full reading of Mediation XVII and an understanding of Donne’s life and theology reveals his further intent. The tolling of the bell refers to the old European tradition of ringing the chapel bell when someone died. That mournful sound would immediately create the question in the mind of the hearer: who has died; for whom is the bell tolling?
And Donne’s point is clear. Today, that bell tolls for some other dear soul. But tomorrow, that bell will toll for you. Later in Meditation XVII, he says:
…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