John Donne

(24 January 1572 - 31 March 1631 / London, England)

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For whom the Bell Tolls


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 this 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 bell 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 it, 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.

Submitted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

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  • * Sunprincess * (7/9/2014 8:43:00 PM)

    ........we are definitely all in this together....this write is very beautiful....yet it is more like a letter of importance than a poem...written for someone special....someone chosen....someone for whom the bell tolls...the concepts in this poem are brilliant....no man is an island unto himself....when one of us fails....we all fail....and vice versa....truly this poet understood the meaning of togetherness....otherwise how could he have composed this brilliant masterpiece... (Report) Reply

  • Gangadharan Nair Pulingat (6/21/2014 3:13:00 AM)

    A poem written in poet's own holistic approach regarding the church, meditation, and collective responsibilities and such so other things which are important and the poem is very beautiful. (Report) Reply

  • Krishnakumar Chandrasekar Nair (3/9/2014 5:08:00 AM)

    The bell tolls for the living dead
    Who hath been given this living breath
    Yet, despondent waste their space and time
    Caring not to count the gifts but whine for wealth...... (Report) Reply

  • Terence George Craddock (3/9/2013 6:18:00 PM)

    To understand 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' by John Donne, it will be useful to explore Donne’s conception of religion. Donne states his belief in Meditation XVII, that the church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all; meaning in death God deals with all in universal terms.

    Donne defines these terms as to God the Lord belong the issues of death, ... it is in his Power to give us and issue... deliverance, ... (we) are brought to the jaws and teeth of death, and to the lips of that whirlpool, the grave. This quote from 'Death's Duell' by John Donne, clearly defines a religious theme, an exploration of the meaning of death.

    The poem begins PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him meaning he is extremely sick and about to die, but does not know he is about to die, that the bells tolls for his imminent death. The discourse on for who the bells are tolling continues I may think myself so much better than I am, ... (but) they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it (the bells) to toll for me, and I know not that. Thus he believes himself to be in better heath than he is, but is terminal and about to die.

    John Donne is expressing various Christian religious thoughts, such as all are united in the body of Christ; indeed Colossians 1: 18 states Christ is the head of the body, the congregation. Donne affirms this belief stating When she (the church) 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. For Donne this clearly means as he originally declared in the lines preceding this quote the church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all.

    How does Donne define God claiming us in death, in ways where death universally claims us? With the belief all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book. Put simply God created man and tears us from the book of life at his will.

    Donne defines death as a process through which we all must be 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. Death is universal but God claims our lives in different ways. It does not matter where or how we die because 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. This is a reference to God writing our names in the book of life or death.

    Donne reminds us we shall all die in the line never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Sharing sufferings of others is a basic Christian concept, and so is sharing death, which Donne links as a universal misery affecting all saying

    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.

    Our sufferings in life Donne insists prepare us or death and God because
    affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

    This echoes the sentiment behind verses like Revelation 2: 27; where people are shepherded with an iron rod, so they will be broken to pieces like clay vessels, and made into a new being. A concept like iron ore tortured in the furnace, to produce the purity of the finest steal. Tribulation is treasure... we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Thus Donne clearly means suffering in life prepares us for the purity, of our creation through death into a new being, to share eternity with God.
    Eventually all shall be sick to death, and this affliction... contemplation we cannot escape. Donne recognizes the hand of God and a chance of salvation in death and he will grasp this opportunity and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security. This is the ultimate reminder, God works in mysterious ways. The concept being we know that God causes everything to work together (cooperate) for the good of those who love God and (who) are called in accordance with his purpose as Romans 8: 28 declares. The treasure of salvation concept Donne expresses, is rich with Biblical references, but after all, these are church bells that toll for us that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world. The language of Meditation XVII by John Donne is difficult, it requires several readings and studied thought but the theme is clear, The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and … (through death and belief we are) united to God. (Report) Reply

  • Shahzia Batool (3/9/2013 8:12:00 AM)

    Yes, God is our only security
    For whom the bell tolls- -A masterpiece by the master poet! ! ! (Report) Reply

  • Kevin Straw (3/9/2010 5:42:00 AM)

    This is the full rich sound of wisdom expressed in precise memorable phrasing, whether you agree with it or not. Imagine being present when this sermon was first heard! (Report) Reply

  • Joseph Poewhit (3/9/2010 5:07:00 AM)

    First I thought, where did Hemingway get the title of his book? ? ? ? ? But Donne, in the poem, tells that GOD is the holder of the reins of life. Lest we mortals forget that revelation. (Report) Reply

  • Indira Renganathan (3/9/2010 2:48:00 AM)

    'any man's
    death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and
    therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls...interesting truth as to how a human is shaken by somebody's death....I like the usage of the term 'translation' on death...any time hereafter when the bell tolls in a church we are sure to be remembered of this poem (Report) Reply

  • Ramesh T A (3/9/2010 12:31:00 AM)

    Philosophical and thought provoking piece! It is biographies and histories of mankind put together as books for preservation in the library of God for reference! Death is not a chapter closed in the book of mankind but a translation from one language to another language! Ideas of this kind are interesting to read in this work! (Report) Reply

  • Frank James Ryan Jr...fjr (3/9/2008 9:15:00 PM)

    As literarily true, that there be only one John Donne, master of holy sonnet....there will be only one bell toll for each of us....And we need not answer it, as it will come to us, veil us, and deliver us to a place where sweet bells chime, eternally.

    ~ FjR ~
    .... +....
    ..2008.. (Report) Reply

  • Mark Schulte (3/9/2007 7:35:00 PM)

    Does anyone know when FWTBT was written? Was he suffering from some particular affliction at the time or just 'meditating' about its effects on others he knows. (Report) Reply

  • Jason Rachels (3/5/2007 8:58:00 PM)

    Incredible poem which I have read through 4 or more times this year alone and with each reading catch greater and greater depth of what Donne has to share. Worthy of meditation and so refreshing to read from a worldview which recognizes God's rightful place as the supreme Lord of all and the one with whom we have to do. (Report) Reply

  • Adam L (3/9/2006 1:35:00 PM)

    This work is not a poem, though it has poetic elements. It is actually called 'Meditation 17' and is from Donne's 'Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.' (Report) Reply

Read all 15 comments »

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