For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island by John Donne

In ‘For Whom the Bell tolls,’ John Donne explores themes of life, death, and the human condition. He suggests that no man is an “island.”

Donne addresses humanity, asking everyone to reconsider how they perceive themselves and their relationship to everyone else. Donne creates a mood and tone that are contemplative and thoughtful, while direct enough to clearly convey the major themes of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’

For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island by John Donne

Explore For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island

 

Summary

‘For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island’ by John Donne is a short, simple poem that addresses the nature of death and the connection between all human beings. 

Donne begins by addressing the impossibility of solitude. “No man,” he says, is an island. All people are connected to one another. So much so that any loss is important. He extends the metaphor to compare the loss of a human being to the loss of a segment of a continent. This emphasis on interconnectivity is continued in the next lines. The poem turns, the poet addresses himself, and he asks that when the bell tolls one should not worry who it is tolling for. It is tolling for everyone. A single person’s death is like the death of everyone.

 

Structure

For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Islandby John Donne is a fourteen-line sonnet that does not follow either of the standard sonnet forms, Petrarchan or Shakespearean. The rhyme scheme is scattered with a few distinct end rhymes like “sea,” “me,” and “thee”. Donne also chose not to use a specific metrical pattern. The lines vary in length, a feature that is unusual for a sonnet. 

There is a distinctive turn, or volta, towards the end of the poem. Donne changes narrative perspectives and addresses his own position in the world. He also addresses the listener, asking that they change their understanding of what it means to be human.

 

Poetic Techniques

Donne makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Island’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, metaphor, and anaphora. The latter, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “As well as if a” which begins lines seven and eight. As well as “For” which starts two lines in the sestet. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines eight and nine as well as twelve and thirteen.

A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In this poem, Donne uses a metaphor to depict human relationships to landmasses and the bell tolling to death.

 

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

In the first lines of For Whom the Bell Tolls/No Man is an Islandthe speaker begins with a clear and memorable opening line. He states that “No man is an island”. No single person is entirely separate from the rest of the world. Every human being is part of a whole. Donne transitions into one of the metaphorical conceits for which he is well-known. He compares human beings, their connection to one another and the rest of the world, to landmasses that are part of a continent. They are all “part of the main”. 

 

Lines 5-8

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

In the next quatrain, the conceit is continued. In these lines he adds onto it, saying that if the continent lost anything, from a “promontory” to a “clod,” or a “manor” that it would be less. This is relating back to human beings and how every loss, or death, is an injury to the whole. Humans are interconnected with one another and can therefore not afford to be flippant with one another’s lives. 

 

Lines 9-14 

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.

In the sestet, of the final six lines of the sonnet, Donne adds onto the statements he made previously by noting that not only “your” loss is meaningful but also “thine friends”. Everyone is injured when one person is. 

The poem then transitions into first-person where the poet addresses himself and his connection to “mankind”. He speaks of “Each man’s death” as diminishing him. He is “involved” in the workings of humankind. 

The last three lines directly address death and what it means when a new death comes to pass. He uses the image of a church bell tolling to symbolize death. When it rings, he says to the listener, do not ask “For whom” it tolls because it “tolls for” you. Whenever anyone dies, it is like everyone has died. 

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Emma Baldwin
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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