Friday, February 3, 2012

No Man is an Island

No Man is an Island is the title of a poem by John Donne, an English poet who lived from 1572 to 1631.  Why am I bringing this up?  I am not known for reading poetry, or for knowing anything about poetry.  That is usually left to a fellow blogger Dan Verner, who is a retired English teacher.  However in one of my GED classes yesterday, the subject about being connected came up, and John Donne's famous poem came to my mind.  I remembered studying about it in high school, which is quite a feat for me at my age.  It is a short poem, but a very meaningful one.  So I recite it here.

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 a manor of thy friends 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. 

As I see it, this poem is saying we are all connected to each other, that when we lose someone, we are in someway diminished.  A part of ourselves is gone, never to be retrieved.  Even if we do not know the person, we are affected by the death of this person, whether we realize it or not.  If a church bell is tolling for that person, it tolls for us as well.  A part of us has also died.

I am not sure when John Donne wrote this poem, in the 16th or 17th century, but obviously there was not much technology around then, not to today's standards.  I think he would be more than amazed to see the technology of today.  He would be amazed to see how connected we are through our social media of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and the like.  But are we really connected in the way John Donne would like us to be?  Do we feel the lose of someone on the other part of the world, or the lose of someone across the street?  We still fight each other.  We still hotly debate the issues of the day, but we debate in a personal and hurtful way.  We have the "my way or the highway" attitude.    

I wish people realized how connected we are to each other, not by our technology, but in a spiritual sense.  We are all human beings, and we have more things that are the same than are different.  If we focused more on the things we hold in common, perhaps we would get along a little better.  That may be a lot to ask, but if we don't ask, it won't happen.


Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

Oh this post is right up my poetic and philosophical alleyways, Brad! I just love that poem and am, of course, reminded of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the same Hemingway who affected the world through his writing and tragic death.

I could actually write a whole blog post responding to your blog post, but that wouldn't seem fair somehow. It's probably not fair that I am about to take up so much space here in your comments section, either, but I am actually proving a point, aren't I? I am affecting you, your readers, the blogospehere and the Internet no matter what I do. Technology has indeed connected us. Ha!

Anyway, I had an English professor who told us Donne was a strange man who was obsessed with death, that he literally used to "practice dying." I am not sure what she meant by that. Perhaps Dan can tell us. That's just a piece of trivia, though. Here's something more important: I learned in a philosophy class that there is a name for the belief that everything we do has the ripple effect, a shot that rings across the world, if you don't mind the war metaphor--war, which, as you bring up, shows how disconnected we still are as a species. (Please don't ask me to name the philosopher or the belief system. Name recall is not on my list of strong abilities.)

I am of the belief that disconnectedness is linked to what we might call "evil." When we disconnect, it's a lot easier to be cruel or at least insensitive. We don't always disconnect on purpose, either. Sometimes, we are injured physically, mentally and/or spiritually so we can't begin to consider that every person and every thing is one. And sometimes, we don't figure this out UNLESS we are injured and someone helps us recover.

I think those of us who have received nurturing enough to recognize the importance of connecting are morally obligated to help others connect, too. That probably sounds way too preachy for some people, and I'm not trying to tell people what to do, but for me, that's the message. If we don't try to help heal others--help them connect--the world and our species will continue to be as it is.

Dan Verner said...

Brad, Thanks for posting this important poem. You and Katherine are absolutely right about what Donne is doing in the poem. And I treasure your reflections on it. "No Man" was adapted as a choral piece although I have not heard it for years. I think the first part goes, "No man is an island. No man stands alone. Each man's fears are my fears. Each man's tears are my own." Not sure those are the exact words, but I'm close.

Donne was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and, Katherine, he did "practice death." He would dress up in a death shroud and, I don't know, go trick or treating. He might have preached a sermon like that as a kind of "memento mori" or a "reminder of death" as if the people didn't see it all the time with the plague and such all about. Let's just say that Joel Osteen he wasn't. But he was enormously popular and crowds flocked to hear him preach and be depressed. He even posed in his death shroud for a famous sculpture that stands atop his funeral urn in St. Paul's (I think) today. If I were better at these things I would cut a picture in of it but you can Google "John Donne death shroud sculpture" and find it. His epitaph was "I am Donne." Such wit.

The line "send not to know for whom the (death) bell tolls: it tolls for thee" comes from a sermon he wrote after having a high fever, the first sign of the frequently fatal plague making the rounds. He recovered, but lying on his couch in the Cathedral he heard the death bell tolling and thought it was for him.

Good times!

Sorry to ramble on. I did this for a living for 32 years so I have a lot of practice.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

Dan, thank you for that lesson in literary history. I either don't remember the details from college or never learned it in the first place, especially the part about his suffering from the plague and writing famous lines while doing so. Who says the plague wasn't useful?

Can you imagine showing up to a somewhere that leaves you more depressed than when you came in? What's up with THAT? I we still do, probably more by visiting websites, so maybe time has stood still to a point.

About death--not to sound trite, but it's usually worse for those left behind. I mean, I bet it's a little scary to die, but it's harder to go on when there's a hole in your heart and your life.