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The meaning and origin of the expression: No man is an island

No man is an island

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'No man is an island'?

The phrase 'no man is an island' expresses the idea that human beings do badly when isolated from others and need to be part of a community in order to thrive.

John Donne, who wrote the work that the phrase comes from, was a Christian but this concept is shared by other religions, principally Buddhism.

What's the origin of the phrase 'No man is an island'?

The meaning and origin of the expression 'No man is an island - John Donne'
John Donne - the origin of
'No man is an island'

'No man is an island' was coined by the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631).

It appears in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Seuerall Steps in my Sicknes - Meditation XVII, 1624:

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 any 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.

The text above is a modern-day transcription of Donne's original , which was written in Early Modern English. like this:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Even if had Donne written nothing else, his creation of 'no man is an island' and 'ask not for whom the bells tolls' in one brief poem, would have lifted him into the premier league of English writers. As it was he wrote numerous poems on the themes of love, sensuality and religion.

Many of his poems are still widely admired and he is considered one of the finest poets to have written in English.

Of course, the second of the two proverbial phrases above was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. This likewise is regarded as one of Hemingway's best works.

'No man is an island' sounds like, and is, an old proverbial expression. Oddly, although it was coined in the 17th century, it only began to be used widely in the second half of the 20th century. This usage started around 1940 but was probably accelerated by the release of a film of the same name in 1962.

The film is a fictionalised version of a true story set on the island of Guam. The American seaman George Tweed was the only member of the U.S. military who evaded capture after the surrender of the island to the Japanese in 1941.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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