John Donne’s famous words – ‘No man is an island’ and ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee’ – have acquired the familiarity almost of catchphrases, but few people know their context or how they came to be written.
When Donne was Dean of St Paul’s, in the last years of his life, he fell seriously ill. As he lay in bed he heard, day after day, the bells tolling for funerals, often of people he had known. Believing that he himself was soon to die, the bells made him aware of the interdependence of men and women in the life of mankind as a whole. Afterwards he wrote a long piece of meditative prose, the Devotions, in which he set down the progression of his thoughts and emotions during his illness.
This beautiful book, containing selections from that work, expresses through Donne’s evocative prose our relationship with our fellow human beings and our place in the great cycle of life and death. In moments of despair it reminds us that, although we must ultimately die, we are important as members of the human race; our very existence makes its own contribution to mankind, and however insignificant and useless we may feel, we matter to each other.
Haunting pen and ink drawings by Helen Lush complement the imagery of the text, bringing us a message of hope and an understanding of the meaning of our lives.
John Donne, the greatest of the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge before taking Anglican orders in 1615. From 1621 until his death ten years later he was Dean of St Paul’s and frequently preached before Charles I. His sermons rank among the best of the seventeenth century, and his poems are distinguished by their erudition, passion and depth of thought.