Many people think that ‘For whom the bell tolls’ is a phrase coined by Hemingway. Not so.
In his famous novel set during the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was quoting this poem by John Donne.
In a very direct and yet still poetic manner, Donne delivers the key idea of the poem: what happens to all of humanity happens to each of us individually. The tolling of the funeral bells is a reminder that when someone— anyone— dies, we are all diminished.
These days, bells are seldom rung for funerals. It’s really only the famous or important – and they are different things in my mind – whose passing is announced in that way. Yet every funeral I attend, or death notice I read, or social media post announcing someone’s passing, brings this poem to my mind.
For Whom The Bell Tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Another of my favourites among Donne’s poetry is his Holy Sonnet 10, also known as Death, Be Not Proud, in which Death receives a blow to the ego.
Another poem about the tradition of ringing bells on important occasions is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Bells’.