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For Whom the Bell Tolls

One of the most famous novels of the 20th century was Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls". This has helped glue the title into the brain of any person who has any pretension of intellectual acumen. Like the titles of most books it was carefully selected to dimly reveal the theme of the book. Just behind the title page, Hemingway gives us the source of his title as the famous lines from John Donne's "Meditation XVII":

Drawing of John Donne
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 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.

John Donne was born in 1572 which places him in the reign of the Tudors in England as well as the firmly in the reign of the first Stewart. He was born a Catholic and members of his family had been afflicted by persecution from the Church of England as well as the state. Donne himself became an Anglican and went to college at Oxford and Cambridge. He took on jobs as secretary to various noblemen of the time. However, he attempted to marry "above his station" and was fired from his job for making off with his patron's niece. Even so, his literary efforts got him enough notice to secure him a post in the Church of England where he continued to write until his death in 1631.

As a product of the Renaissance, Donne was filled with certain ideals and the passage he wrote in "Meditation XVII" reflects this. He believed that all people were connected by community bonds as well as spiritual bonds. Every event in the life of one man had some influence on the life of all others. The very influence Donne had on authors that came after him is some evidence of the truth of his axiom.

When Donne writes of the tolling bell, he is, of course, speaking of the funeral bell. It was traditionally rung three times for a man and two times for a woman followed by a pause and then a toll for every year of age for the deceased. It is a solemn sounding bell as can easily be discerned from the descriptive poetry of Poe's "The Bells".

Hear the tolling of the bells -
Iron Bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.

People of that time were understandably agitated when they heard the funeral bell toll. At the time people lived by the bells in the church steeple. To hear funeral bells was the equivalent today of broaching the obituaries in the newspaper. It is interesting to note that Donne tells his reader to "never send to ask...". For modern readers this will seem a curious phrase. Yet at the time, modern communication systems did not exist. Anyone with wealth had servants to provide the conveniences that today are provided by machines in most technological societies. Thus Donne is speaking to the wealthy person saying, don't send your servant to find out who is dead.

There is some debate over exactly what Donne meant. Whether he meant that the tolling bell was merely a reminder that all men are mortal; or it was a signal that this passing was like the whole world dying just a little bit. Hemingway obviously thought it a little of both. His title, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" reveals his thoughts about the Spanish Civil War (the backdrop to the work) as a conflict where this notion that "no man is an island" is tested. The main character is an American fighting against the fascists. He could stay safe and secure at home. But he makes this fight his own because he feels connected to the side upon which he battles. He feels himself to be fighting for the good of all mankind. Nevertheless, as characters fight, struggle and die we are shown the fragility of human existence. The book itself, though exciting in parts, is like a funeral bell - a fairly solemn tome.

Ultimately, the point of Donnes "Meditation XVII" is more uplifting. Even though we all die a bit when someone else dies, the interconnectedness of humanity means that some part of us lives on even after we die.

W.J. Rayment


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