I was talking to a student recently when the subject of war and funerals came up.
I mentioned “no man is an island” casually, and could tell she didn’t get the reference.
So I said, “You’ve heard of the John Donne quote about, ‘No man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls,’ haven’t you.”
She shook her head, no, with a blank expression.
Since we were sitting at a computer, I Googled “No man is an island,” and several sources of the John Donne quote came up.
To my surprise, the first one I went to didn’t have the usual translation – it was the quote in its original “old English.”
I was delighted. I had never seen this before. Somehow it increased the meaning for me – the 17th Century language emphasized the timelessness of the message. Here it is:
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
The bell reference, if you’re not familiar with it, involves a church bell tolling for a funeral. There’s a lot going on in those few short words, but they come back to me the most powerfully when I see a funeral procession or hear the church bells for a military service.
The central message – that all mankind is intertwined – is expecially poignant during time of war. All mankind is diminished by each death – whether a U.S. Marine or a Taliban fighter.
The student seemed to appreciate that I shared the famous quote with her. I certainly appreciated the chance to revisit it – closer to its 1624 origins.