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The meaning and origin of the expression: For whom the bell tolls

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For whom the bell tolls

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Meaning

A quotation from a work by John Donne, in which he explores the interconnectedness of humanity - see below.

Origin

john donneJohn Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris:

"Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows 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.

...

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 bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

Donne lived in Tudor and Stewart England, and at that time the tolling of church bells to mark various events was an important feature of daily life. The tolling referred to in the quotation is, of course, that of funeral bells. Donne's view, which has, oddly for a 17th century Christian, much in common with 21st century eastern religions, was that all people are socially and spiritually interconnected; for example, the contemporary Buddhist view is demonstrated by the reply given by the Dalai Lama, when asked during a visit to Northern Ireland how the warring Protestants and Catholics could co-exist: "Remember we are all one - all the same". Donne seems to be saying that whatever affects one affects us all. This is highlighted by the famous 'no man is an island' line at the beginning of the 'for whom the bells tolls' paragraph.

Donne's Meditations concern man's spiritual and social functioning, especially with regard to illness and death. They are somewhat mystical and difficult to interpret, especially without the benefit of experience of the nuances of the social and religious sensibilities of a 17th century Englishman. It is a testament to Donne's insight that the work contains much that strikes deep chords with people living and dying today.

There's some debate about what precisely what was meant. Some think that Donne was simply pointing out people's mortality and that when a funeral bell was heard it was a reminder that we are nearer death each day, that is, the bell is tolling for us. Others view it more mystically and argue that Donne is saying we are all one and that, when one dies, we all die a little. This isn't as bleak as it might sound, as the counterpoint would be that there is some part of the living in the dead and that we continue a form of life after death.

Ernest Hemingway helped to make the phrase commonplace in the language when he chose to use the quotation for the title of his 1940-published book about the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway refers back to 'for whom the bells tolls' and to 'no man is an island' to demonstrate and examine his feelings of solidarity with the allied groups fighting the fascists. There was a strong feeling amongst many intellectuals around the world at the time that it was a moral duty to fight fascism, which they feared may take root world-wide if not checked. This view was given voice later in the well-known poem First They Came for the Jews, attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Hemingway adapted the novel as the screenplay to a successful 1943 film of the same title, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.