Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about one of my favorite short pieces of literature, John Donne’s “Meditation 17.” In this nasty political climate, I’m finding this piece particularly inspirational and resonant. For those of you thinking “I haven’t heard of that one,” yes, you have. It contains one of the most famous lines in literary history: “…and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” Donne’s “Meditation 17” is exactly what it sounds like it is – a brief pondering of a weighty issue. A short musing.
A 17th century blog entry, if you will.
If you haven’t read it, you can read the entire text here. It’s about a page and a half, but it’s dense, and not a particularly easy read. I’m going to do my best to explain it here, using short quotes from the work. Feel free to let me know if I don’t get something exactly right. I’m no expert on Donne.
To read “Meditation 17,” one needs a bit of background knowledge. In Donne’s community, church bells are rung on numerous occasions. They are rung to call people to the church to pray, of course. They are rung for baptisms, and for funerals. But they are also rung for an occasion I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t read Donne’s piece: to notify the community of an impending death. I presume this is done so that the community can then assist the family, say good-bye to the dying person, and pray on that person’s behalf.
Donne, a preacher who has recently been very ill himself, begins the essay by wondering: “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him.” He speculates that perhaps he is actually the one for whom the bell is tolling, and that because he is so sick his family have kept this from him, so he is hearing his own death knell without realizing it. From there he jumps to the idea that the Church is “universal.” Everything the church does, he says, it does for all and to all. When a child is baptized, that child becomes a member of the congregation to which Donne belongs: “connected to that body which is my head too.” When a member of that congregation dies, “that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
This begins my favorite passage of the “Meditation,” where Donne gives us his vision of our connected selves in death:
… 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.
What is so lovely about this passage is the idea that we are all just pages in one giant book, and that when we die, our lives will be “translated” into words that everyone can, and will, read. I am moved by the vision of all that human history, laid out for each of us to finally digest and understand, so that everyone’s story will become fully part of our own. I should note here that I am not religious, but it doesn’t matter: Donne’s message is essentially the same whether one believes in God, or not.
At that point, Donne explains that the bells which he hears ringing from his church are not, therefore, just for the preacher to remind him to begin the service. They aren’t simply for the sick man on his deathbed. They call us all. He says that if we only recognized why the “evening” bells were really ringing, we would want to be early risers to prayer, to make the most of the time between the first bell and the last. We would want each bell that rings to be for us. “The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth,” and though it may not ring constantly, from the first moment we hear it and truly understand that it rings for us all, we are “united with God.” He suggests that once we know the bell’s true meaning, we cannot “remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of (ourselves) out of this world.” Once you know the bell will one day ring for you, then every bell becomes a reminder of our linked mortality.
“No man is an island,” Donne reminds us, “entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” The smallest speck of land washed away from England makes the country smaller, just as a larger piece does. Thus, he says, “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.”
This is, obviously, the most famous part of the “Meditation,” but it doesn’t end there. In fact, Donne then goes on to explain that when we acknowledge that death is universal, we will be able to accept some of the suffering of others onto ourselves, easing their burden. This will, in turn, bring us closer to God, as “affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.” When we suffer for others, we “are matured and ripened” by that suffering. This can only be good for us, “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.” Being reminded of our own deaths will remind us to live more righteously, and to ask forgiveness for our sins.
The purpose of Donne’s little piece is to point out to us our collective impending death, and in doing so, to toll a bell to remind us of our connected frailty, of our need to help one another, of our duty to the “body” to which we all belong. I think of the men and women who are our elected officials, who are there in Washington to represent us, their “congregation” within the universal body of our country. I hope that when considering legislation, they remember their connectedness to those they touch through the laws they create. I hope they consider that the suffering and death of any one of us, no matter how insignificant, diminishes us all. And beyond our country, to the mass of humankind to which we are all, ultimately, responsible… I think of the many bells we don’t hear, because we are afraid to examine the meaning of that sound, and I hope we are all capable of listening more closely.