Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; 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. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
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 bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: 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.
I always wanted to be a writer like John Donne—a poet who wrote prose, a philosopher who made music. And most of all, I wanted to be part of the chain of voices emulating and echoing each other that is our literary history. The best way to do this, I reckoned, was to raise the torch that Donne had passed to me. So I began to write a yearly meditation essay, a chance to check in on myself and my progression toward death—though I didn’t mean for this to be morbid. Rather, an annual accounting of my mortality, the enduring questions and the sudden insights that accompany the ticking of my particular clock.
In eighth grade, my class read John Donne’s 1633 “Holy Sonnet X,” better known by its opening lines, “Death Be Not Proud.” I loved the poem for its prosody and deep feeling. I loved the poet for calling out Death as the bully it was and for the brave rallying cry of his final line—“Death, thou shalt die!”
But what I loved best about this lesson wasn’t even the opportunity to read and discuss a poem; it was the way this poem gave way to another work of literature—John Gunther’s 1949 memoir, Death Be Not Proud.
“Didn’t he get in trouble for stealing Donne’s title?” I asked.
Miss Christjaener shook her head. “It isn’t copyright infringement if you’re using another writer’s words for parody or homage.”
I wrote down parody. I wrote down homage. And a few years later, in my Honors British Literature class, I encountered the word emulation for the first time. I understood it to mean that writers were granted permission, perhaps even expected, to write under the influence or in the spirit of those who came before them.
And here was John Donne again. This time the poet was writing prose—what I would now call a “micro-essay” or “work of flash creative nonfiction.” John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” was 716 words of thinking with feeling, philosophizing with musicality. Maybe, in more genre language I hadn’t learned yet, “Meditation XVII” was a short-form lyric essay.
This time when I raised my hand, I did it with confidence. I told Sister Mary Annette, “This is the kind of writing that inspires other writers. Ernest Hemingway borrowed a line from this piece and titled his whole novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And Sister Mary Annette, who was rarely pleased with anyone, seemed for a moment to be pleased with me. “It’s like when Donne says ‘no man is an island, entire of itself,’ he also means no writer is an island.”
My first collection of lyric essays, Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, contains “Meditation 26.” My second collection of lyric essays, Small Fires, contains “Meditation 29.” Over the years, these meditations have taken on new and wide-ranging forms, more ambitious content and greater stylistic risks. Soon, Meditation 40: The Honesty Room will be published as a stand-alone volume. John Donne, that poet-turned-prosist from long ago and far away, has never felt closer or more relevant. And for my part, I have never felt more “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”