No man is an island,Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
His preaching was famous across the whole of London. His congregation — merchants, aristocrats, actors in elaborate ruffs, the whole of the city’s elite — came to his sermons. Some carried paper and ink to write down his finest passages and take them home to relish and dissect them. Donne often wept in the pulpit, in joy and in sorrow, and his audience would weep with him.
A contemporary wrote in a letter, “Two or three were endangered, and taken up dead for the time.” There’s no record of Donne halting his sermon; so it’s not impossible that he kept going in his rich, authoritative voice as the bloodied men were carried off and out of sight.
John Donne was honest about death and its place in the task of living, just as he insisted on joy. Both his life and his work tell us the same thing: It is only by keeping death nearby that one can truly live.
Confronted with the thought of death, many of us perform the psychological equivalent of hiding in a box with our knees under our chin. But Donne saluted death; he wrote death poetry, he threw it parties. He had a memento mori that he left to a friend in his will, “the picture called The Skeleton which hangs in the hall.” For Donne, that we are born astride the grave was a truth to welcome.
Death — the looming fact of it, its finality and clarifying power — calls us to attention and wakes us up to life.
As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.