John Donne

" for whom the bell tolls "

Ernest Hemingway

These words have become one of the memorable phrases of the English language. You will find them used in a wide swathe of meanings from theological considerations of the meaning of life and death, to a personal awareness of the unexpected arrival of the inevitable finale. Today we find the phrase used in connection with the death knolls attending the increasingly vicious warfare which this new millennium has already spawned.

Of course the modern reader's reference will be to Ernest Hemingway's book "For Whom the Bell Tolls" from 1940, as set in the Spanish Civil War of the previous decade which Hemingway witnessed as fighter, reporter and author. One might wonder how Hemingway came to choose these exact words, which are usually stated to be taken from a poem by John Donne, and that does require some explanation.

Donne as leader of the English "Metaphysical" poets of the early 17th century was almost totally unknown until he was "discovered " by Edmund Gosse and the late 19th century critics, when his poems printed from authentic sources in Grierson's great two volume edition of 1912. He was finally promoted after 1920 with widespread influence by T. S. Eliot into the status of a major English poet. The literary world was excited by the appearance of a "new" poet who had hard edges to both his thought and his verse, a writer who could be tough to read but well worth puzzling over. In the new world of Pound's and Eliot's difficult poetry, Donne was immediately seen as a welcome partner.

But then, what might be the connection between Hemingway's Spanish Civil War and Donne the poet and Anglican preacher of the 1620's? Looking through the collected poems, you will not find a poem "For Whom the Bell Tolls". And when you do locate those words it will be in an entirely different prose setting, in a curious little book from 1624 "Devotions | upon |Emergent Occasions and se|uerall steps in my Sicknes.....". Was Hemingway just capping a clever quotation for the title of his book, like the hundreds of book titles neatly lifted with a doubled meaning from a Shakespearean source ? Or was there something more cogent and intimate which he was pondering, some connection between death in battle and an inevitable death in sickness in bed? To examine the threads of this three hundred year old literary tissue, we must turn back our sense of history and open some pages which have not been read for centuries. Perhaps there are some surprises in areas we would not have suspected.

It was in l588 that England was formally at war with Spain, constructing an English fleet to oppose the Spanish Armada designed to attack and subjugate the British Isles to Spain and the Catholic belief. The Spanish fleet with a hundred thirty two vessels carrying 3165 cannon was defeated in summertime in the channel, and completely destroyed off Ireland later that year by a major storm. The number of soldiers the fleet carried can be estimated from the amount of cups and tableware recently salvaged from submerged ships off Ireland, pointing to a staggering army of invasion.

Now that England was clear of the danger, the next step was to retaliate with raids on Spain as the home country, and in 1596 Essex conducted a famous raid on the port of Cadiz on Spain's Atlantic Coast. Cadiz had been an important trading port from Roman times, it was in the 16th century the wealthiest port of Western Europe and the headquarters for the ships of the Spanish treasure trade. In fact it was the exit port for Columbus' pioneering New World expedition. Essex knew there was a fleet of warships in the bay at that time. With the fleet he commanded combined with that of Charles Howard he attacked the port destroying forty merchant vessels and thirteen warships. The damage to port and town was so severe that it necessitated the rebuilding of the town on a new plan in the following years.

Now it so happened that a young man named John Donne had enlisted in Essex's expedition. Izaac Walton, the famed author of "The Compleat Angler", had written several short Memoirs on famous men of his time, including Donne (1640) and Donne's friend Henry Wotton (1651) who was on the same expedition with Essex in l596. (It is curious that in the early literary interchange between Donne and Wotton, there is a charming poem by Wotton "On Angling", which may have suggested Walton's manual "The Compleat Angler" written much later in 1651. ) Here are Walton's words about Donne in l596:

About a year following he resolved to travel; and the Earl of Essex going first to Cales, and after the island voyages, the first anno 1596, the second 1597, he took the advantage of those opportunities, waited upon his lordship, and was an eye-witness of those happy and unhappy employments.

But he returned not back into England till he had stayed some years, first in Italy, and then in Spain, where he made many useful observations of those countries, their laws and manner of government, and returned perfect in their languages.

John Donne saw from shipboard the encounter of Essex's well prepared fleet of warships blasting cannon at some fifty-three Spanish ships in the harbor as they blew up or sank, then turning the cannon with fire balls onto the town, which being on a promontory in the bay, offered little chance of escape. What would this have looked like to a twenty four years old educated and sensitive lad like Donne, watching from the ships as the bay filled with smoke from burning ships? The air was befouled by a dense and bitter haze from the pervasive black powder of hundreds of cannon, cries of men in the water clinging to spars, while the cannoneers on the ships loaded and refired as fast as possible, intending to destroy the town completely. Amid the smoke, flame and gunshot could be heard the sound of alarm from the town, the warning that Cadiz was under attack. Every church through the town kept its bells ringing through the day as warning to the people to run and hide, continuing through the night at a slower pace to ring the knell of those who had perished in the daytime. Donne heard the sound of the bells ringing in his ears, and those sounds were to be still there in 1624 when he lad abed with a recurring malarial fever, hysterically writing a little book of Devotions centered on issues of life and death, words punctuated in the critical and most frantic sections of his meditations, by the sound of the ringing of the bells.

We have learned from bitter experience in a half dozen recent wars, that men in battle under stress often much later will have recurrent dreams and even hallucinations steming back to the stresses of battle. After the sea-fight, Donne stayed in Spain and later took time to travel across Europe, perhaps as much out of need for emotional repairs as from curiosity. He and Wotton exchanged a series of poems, but never wrote an account of the horrors of the Bay of Cadiz . Perhaps it was better forgotten.

But there is another thing which I surmise John Donne may have carried away from his time in Spain. Malaria is a disease which seems to have existed along with human life from ancient times, in fact its necessary adjunct in the carrier system of the anopheles mosquito has been found in very ancient fossil deposits. Malaria itself is an infective disease caused by sporozoan parasites that are transmitted through the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito, with results in the infected marked by paroxysms of chills and fever. We often associate malaria with tropical climates where it may easily become and endemic disease, but there has been an long history of persistent malaria around the Mediterranean Basin, from the time of Hippocrates who first described it as a disease, long before it was isolated by Laveran in l880. It was prevalent in many European countries as late as l940 when DDT finally removed it from listing as a dangerous disease. In earlier times all the countries around the Mediterranean Sea had some amount of malarial sickness, and a port like 16th century Cadiz which was involved in world trade would have been a natural spot for it. The Encyclopedia Brit. 11th ed. s.v. Cadiz refers to the areas around the city as low-lying and unhealthy as late as its period of publication in 1910.

Donne had secretly married the daughter of Sir Thomas More in l601, and this caused him severe personal problems for several years until finally forgiven. In 1606 he and his wife were living in a small house in Mitcham, where he was reported to have said that his house was both a "hospital" and a "prison". We can't be exactly sure what this may have meant, but it was less than ten years after going to Cadiz and a perfectly suitable time for a recurrent attack of malarial fever. We note that he used the word "feaver" in four places in his poems, an unusual word there since not used in a clinical sense, but probably suggested by a malarial episode in those early years. Donne did have a tendency to use unusual words in new senses, a feature of the style which he and a group around him favored even to the point obscurity,. For this which reason Dryden first called them followers of "Metaphysics", which led to Dr. Johnson's invention of the standard term Metaphysical Poets.

Now I would like to turn to a most curious little book which Donne had published in l624:

Devotions TP

This book is a series of devotional essays written by as if by a man in various stages of a continuing sickness. The list of the chapters shows the tenor of the book and the progress of the illness, which in Hippocratic fashion seems to be following the course of the disease under the doctor's attendant, rather than our modern active medical care.

1. The first alteration, the first grudging of the sickness
2. The strength and the function of the senses, and other faculties, change and fail
3. The patient takes his bed
4. The physician is sent for
5. The physician comes
6. The physician is afraid
7. The physician desires to have others joined with him
8. The king sends his own physician
9. Upon their consultation, they prescribe
10. They find the disease to steal on insensibly, and endeavor to meet with it so
11. They use cordials, to keep the venom and the malignity of the disease from the heart
12. They apply pigeons, to draw the from the head
13. The sickness declares the infection and malignity thereof by spots
14. The Physicians observe these accidents to have fallen upon the critical days
15. I sleep not day or night
16. From the bells of the church adjoining, I am daily remembered of my burial in the funerals of others
17. Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die 18. The bell rings out, and tells me in him, that I am dead
19. At last the physicians, after a long and stormy voyage, see land: They have so good signs of the concoction of the disease, as that they may safely proceed to purge
20. Upon these indications of digested matter, they proceed to purge
21. God prospers their practice, and he, by them, calls Lazarus out of his tomb, me out of my bed
22. The physicians consider the root and occasion, the embers, and coals, and fuel of the disease, and seek to purge or correct that
23. They warn me of the fearful danger of relapsing

This is a mere chapter list but it shows the course of what looks like a real illness, which I believe to a series of malarial recurrances; actually Section 23 seems to point to this recurrance as malarial. This rare and once forgotten book is now available to read online in various editions, and I suggest perusing it as fascinating reading of a very unusual calibre. But it is sections 17 and 18 which are of concern here since they raise the matter of the hallucinatory bells from Cadiz in l596, and contain two passages of great beauty, which I would like to examine more closely:


From the bells of the church adjoining, I am daily remembered of my burial in the funerals of others.


WE have a convenient author, who writ a discourse of bells when he was prisoner in Turkey. How would he have enlarged himself if he had been my fellow-prisoner in this sick bed, so near to that steeple which never ceases, no more than the harmony of the spheres, but is more heard. When the Turks took Constantinople, they melted the bells into ordnance; I have heard both bells and ordnance, but never been so much affected with those as with these bells. I have lain near a steeple in which there are said to be more than thirty bells, and near another, where there is one so big, as that the clapper is said to weigh more than six hundred pounds, yet never so affected as here. Here the bells can scarce solemnize the funeral of any person, but that I knew him, or knew that he was my neighbour: we dwelt in houses near to one another before, but now he is gone into that house into which I must follow him. There is a way of correcting the children of great persons, that other children are corrected in their behalf, and in their names, and this works upon them who indeed had more deserved it. And when these bells tell me, that now one, and now another is buried, must not I acknowledge that they have the correction due to me, and paid the debt that I owe? There is a story of a bell in a monastery which, when any of the house was sick to death, rung always voluntarily, and they knew the inevitableness of the danger by that. It rung once when no man was sick, but the next day one of the house fell from the steeple and died, and the bell held the reputation of a prophet still. If these bells that warn to a funeral now, were appropriated to none, may not I, by the hour of the funeral, supply? How many men that stand at an execution, if they would ask, For what dies that man? should hear their own faults condemned, and see themselves executed by attorney? We scarce hear of any man preferred, but we think of ourselves that we might very well have been that man; why might not I have been that man that is carried to his grave now? Could I fit myself to stand or sit in any man's place, and not to lie in any man's grave? I may lack much of the good parts of the meanest, but I lack nothing of the mortality of the weakest; they may have acquired better abilities than I, but I was born to as many infirmities as they. To be an incumbent by lying down in a grave, to be a doctor by teaching mortification by example, by dying, though I may have seniors, others may be older than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university, and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement fever, and whomsoever these bells bring to the ground to-day, if he and I had been compared yesterday, perchance I should have been thought likelier to come to this preferment then than he. God hath kept the power of death in his own hands, lest any man should bribe death. If man knew the gain of death, the ease of death, he would solicit, he would provoke death to assist him by any hand which he might use. But as when men see many of their own professions preferred, it ministers a hope that that may light upon them; so when these hourly bells tell me of so many funerals of men like me, it presents, if not a desire that it may, yet a comfort whensoever mine shall come

But it is in the following section we come to the great passage on bells, in which bells signify both death and also something more than death, the final ceremony of great mystery. Sick with malarial "feaver" and shaking with sweating and chills alternately, the sick man becomes hysterically imaginative and feeds his writing with long-drawn memories of bells at a distant time and place. It is the ringing at Cadiz where there is war and death and imaginable horrors under the shroud of a symphony of a hundred bells altogether ringing their different tones in different tempi.


Now, this bell tolling softly far another, says to me: Thou must die.


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. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

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. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger Itake mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

I have marked two passages above in boldface, each is of a high poetical and imaginative nature and each serves as introduction to a longer discourse which is a Devotion rather than a literary prose-poem. The first one is virtually unknown to modern readers, but a good emotional preface to the second one, which I would like to discuss in detail. We often see the words respelled in modern style, with lines laid out as if written as a poem. Much better to read the text authentically, as copied from the original publication of l624:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were ; and 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.

Standing on deck of one of the warships, Donne had a good view of the city, which stood on a low promontory reaching out into the Bay of Cadiz. The land was so low, a virtual promontory with water on both sides, that it must have looked to him as if the whole landmass could be shaken loose under the heavy bombardments and vanish by sliding out to sea. What if your house or your friend's house were washed out into the sea ....? Or another life slipped out to sea...? Or even a mere clod of Europe lost in the ocean.....? We have our own horrors of this sort, a giant mudslide inundating a whole town with everybody buried alive. Or a tsunami washing away shores and houses and bodies to float on the ocean's waves. It is not the numbers which count, the figures of the accounted dead; because for each child disappeared into nowhere we must also remember that Humanity is the less.

There it stands, this non-poem of John Donne, a piece of a unusual and unparalleled set of sick-bed Devotions, written by a man trying to connect the moments of his hot and cold malarial attacks with the memory of a city's bells ringing out waves of sounds to announce the coming of the end. For Cadiz it was the end of life for a multitude, but thirty years later the young man who had witnessed the bombardment of the city is a sick man in bed, somehow recalling that acoustic cloud of bell-ringing as sign of something speaking out for him too. Six years later John Donne would expire his last breath, but here in the throes of illness he knows the bells are ringing for him too.

And so for us all, whether we lie abed with doctor and friends at hand, or lying in mud and blood in a war torn field in Franco's Spain in the l930's before the dazed eyes of reporter Ernest Hemingway. He knew Spain and the sound of war and of the Spanish church bells well, and he knew that it would be ringing for him soon, not shot by a Fascist bullet in the chest, but by a revolver held in his own hand. We often know things which are coming many years ahead, and Hemingway chose the title for his 1940 book with several purposes. He was marking the continued savagery of man's murder of his fellow in the same Spain that Donne had seen some three centuries earlier. And he knew that the bells were beginning to ring for him too, and that there would be time for a knell hardly to be avoided.

Donne's little book was printed just once in 1624 and disappeared along with the body of Donne's poetry from the conscious stream of English literature. In l840 Pickering in London printed it again as a rare book, but it was not until the end of that century that Edmund Gosse resuscitated Donne's whole opus and made it clear that a major author, of whom he did not approve entirely, had been lost and found. In that same period the music of Vivaldi and the classic harpsichord were re-discovered, although there are still libraries of lost artists and major authors along with myriad dilettanti, which await discovery when the time is right.

It was the printing of the first critical modern edition of the Devotions in l923 , advised by T.S. Eliot's sage publishing advice, which came to the attention of Ernest Hemingway. The edition is now considered rare and unavailable (Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Edited by John Sparrow, with a Bibliographical Note by Geoffrey Keynes. Cambridge: University Press, 1923.) , but at the time of its publication it publicly completed the literary crown of John Donne's laurels. Now available in paperback and read widely, it seems hard to believe that this pregnant book was unknown to the public for three centuries! So spin the fates of books and of literary criticism!

We critics must consider carefully the role of health and especially of sickness in the creation of all kinds of art. Plato spoke sympathetically of "the bridle of Theages", some sort of an incapacitating ailment which defeated the obvious talents of a young student of his; but it is often the reaction against a bridle of some sort, whether mental, physical or emotional, which creates a special force and gives new impetus to the creative processes. Plato's myopic eyesight may have forced him to do more thinking with the inner mind, just as Rembrandt's myopia of his later years gained the depth and sincerity of those remarkable self-portraits which the earlier brilliantly detailed paintings did not have. In our age it seems to have been drink or drugs which drive one author to desperation and another to fame. I think of Sam Peckinpaw's distressed and peculiar career, leaving behind a small handful of what will probably be regarded as masterworks fifty years after his death. Or it can be drugs which kill, or they may change inner vision opening a door to perception, as was first thought in the l950's.

Whether malarial attacks fall within the class of creative impulse-giving is not clear because we can't really think of the anopheles mosquito as a serious author's muse. But many authors who have worked in tropical climates have had to deal with the disease, and perhaps future medico-critics will be able to sift some medical history from an author's biography, and find unsuspected twists in the course of disease to explain part of the imaginative processes.

In the case of John Donne, there is a triple thread weaving through his life which touches upon normally disparate areas. On the one hand there is England and the Spanish Wars and the triumph at Cadiz amid horrors of a city razed. We have seen this situation in WW II and now Iraq, a sad and sobering tradition. But also Donne had to deal with his Christian beliefs and his religious conscience about the meaning of life, which he did in a remarkable series of read and published Sermons. This is not a genre we take much interest in nowadays, yet one which demanded much personal involvement from a man of his high level of conscience. And then there was the matter of a recurrent and at time incapacitating illness, which we have good reason to identify as malaria, and it was this when mixed into the porridge of the first two considerations, which produced his remarkable and unique book of Devotions. Greatest effects often come from a combination of separate forces, and I believe that the case of John Donne's personal history is a good example of disparate factors working in close concert.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College