English poet John Donne (1572-1631) is probably best known for his widely quoted prose work, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which he published in 1624. Donne wrote Devotions to document his reflections while enduring a near-death illness. Devotions artistically validates the expression "our whole life flashes before our eyes when we're about to die." He divided the book into 23 parts, each representing a day of his illness, from his first symptoms to the depths of sickness, to his ultimate recovery.
The book is at once a spiritual self-examination, a conversation with humanity, and an appeal to God. The 23 parts are subdivided into 3 parts: Meditation, a representation of his experience while ill; Expostulation, his metaphysical reaction to it; and Prayer, his coming to terms with it.
In the meditation section of Part 17, Donne faces the specter of death with this admission: "Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he know not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that." Later in this passage comes Donne's arguably most famous sentence, in 81 words:
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 friend's 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.Does a chill run down your spine as you absorb the existential quality of that remarkable sentence? The sheer moral responsibility that Donne holds us to simultaneously overwhelms and inspires.
Read previous installments of "Splendid Sentences" on Words on the Line:
- Part 1: James Baldwin on Artists
- Part 2: Stanley Karnow on the Vietnam Memorial
- Part 3: Steven Pinker on Human Progress
- Part 4: Martin Luther King Jr. on Injustice
- Part 5: Andrew Sullivan on Religious Fundamentalism
- Part 6: Carl Sagan on the Environment
- Part 7: Harold Bloom on Shakespeare
- Part 8: Richard Bradley on Openers
- Part 9: T. S. Eliot on Dante
- Part 10: Edward Albee on Carson McCullers