For Whom the Bell Tolls
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Although we may not realize it, most of us are familiar with John Donne’s words because they have been used in the titles of a number of classic novels and autobiographies. Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls takes its title from Donne’s famous “Meditation 17,” where the poet, in an oft-repeated phrase, declares, “No man is an island, entire of itself . . . every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main[land] . . .. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.” And John Gunther’s poignant autobiography of separation and loss, Death Be Not Proud, draws its title from one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. In fact, many phrases from Donne’s Holy Sonnets—“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”; “I am a little world made cunningly”—are familiar to readers, though they may not be aware that the words are Donne’s.
Perhaps the most influential of all English poets, John Donne challenged the conventions of Elizabethan poetry—its rhyme scheme, its pastoral contents, its emphasis on feeling—and introduced a style poetry that came to be known as “metaphysical,” because it engaged not feelings but the intellect and reveled in intellectual wordplay. Donne’s poems are personally passionate, and he attempts to unite both thought and feeling in them. In his poem “The Flea,” for example, he uses the flea as the image for the marriage bed and the Holy Trinity. Donne’s poetry as well as his religious writings embrace and reflect wit and paradox, irony and ambiguity. Although many of his contemporaries criticized his poetry, his writings greatly influenced T.S. Eliot and a number of other poets and writers who valued the combination of intellect and feeling in poetry.
Born in 1572 in London to Roman Catholic parents, Donne belonged to a time marked by theological controversy as well as a time rich in the literature of worship, liturgy, and devotion. When The Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549, its form and style influenced Donne’s devotional style as well as the writings of many others. The sermons of the Anglican divines Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, the devotional writing of Jeremy Taylor, the meditative writings of Thomas Browne, and the King James Version of the Bible appeared during Donne’s lifetime, and each of these writings contributed to the beauty and ardor of Donne’s own poetry and prose.
Although Donne was born to Roman Catholic parents, he did not begin to write religious poetry or religious prose until later in life. While he was studying law, Donne’s brother, Henry, died in prison while serving a sentence for religious treason. His brother’s death, his growing skepticism, and his close examination of the religious controversies of his day contributed to Donne’s gradual turn from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism. During the years from 1596 to 1614, Donne vacillated between his career as a poet of verse letters, love poems, and satires, and his growing interest in religion. In 1614, after three years of studying Greek and Hebrew, he wrote Essays on Divinity, and the next year he was ordained and appointed chaplain to the King. In 1621, Donne was installed as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where he remained the rest of his life. Donne’s bouts of serious illness often left him physically weak but mentally alert, and he wrote his famous “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness” during these years.
Although the majority of Donne’s religious writings come from this later period of his life, all of his writings contain an implicit concern for things religious. Even in his ribald lyric “The Flea,” Donne weaves his reflections upon the Trinity and the ways that the Triune presence resembles marriage into his meditations on marital sex. His more mature reflections on religion, however, do belong to his later years.
Donne’s religious writings express a clearly incarnational theology. The Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection are the central themes of his sermons. His Christmas and Easter sermons are passionate and fiery paeans to the love of Christ. Even his sermons on the Trinity focus on Christ’s powerful and overwhelming love. His wonder and awe at the love of God incarnate in Christ also emerges from his Devotions and his Essays in Divinity.
Donne’s religious poetry also communicates the power of Christ’s love to weak sinners. Reflecting Donne’s constant awareness of the sins of his early life, his poems often express his sense of his own unworthiness to be forgiven by God in Christ. Revealing Donne’s emphasis on Christ’s earthly ministry, the first cycle of the Holy Sonnets traces Jesus’ life and work from the Annunciation to the Ascension, and explores the ways the Jesus’ life and work affects ours as Christians.
Donne’s illnesses also loom large in his poetry and his prose. In the Devotions and in his prayers, physical illness serves as a metaphor for spiritual illness. His great anxiety and despair about death are assuaged only by Christ’s having delivered us from death by his own death, a point Donne makes with repeated force in “Death’s Duel,” a sermon he called “the author’s own funeral sermon.” His fear of death, even though it may be found in such early poems as “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning,” occupies much of his religious poetry. In “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness,” for example, Donne opens the poem by speaking about his straits of fever and “coming to that holy room” where he implores God to “raise up” he whom the Lord has “thrown down.” Donne’s greatest hope, even in illness and anticipation of death, is the mysterious love of God in Christ, who has delivered us from death and has gone to prepare a place for us in God’s kingdom. Donne’s religious poetry and prose display as much thought and passion for modern Christians as they do for his original readers.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.