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John Donne

No Man Is an Island

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1624

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Summary and Study Guide


John Donne wrote “No Man Is an Island” as a part of his “Meditation 17” devotional writing, published in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions in 1624. Donne is usually associated with a group 17th century poets called the metaphysical poets, who combined complex, unconventional metaphors with scientific allusions and a focus on religion, death, or love. While “No Man Is an Island” originated in prose form, the comprising lines are often extracted as stand-alone verse. The poem’s speaker addresses a general, unidentified audience—one assumed to include all of humanity. In addition to being metaphysical poetry, the text is lyrical, as it delineates the personal thoughts and emotions of the speaker. Donne’s religious clerical occupation, devoted to guiding humankind away from material existence and toward an understanding of mortality, informs this particular excerpt of his work. His clerical duties, as well as the trauma suffered in his personal life, provide an interpretive framework. The text speaks to the interconnectedness of humankind and a recognition of humanity’s shared mortality.

Poet Biography

Like many of his contemporaries, John Donne fell out of popularity regarding his writing not long after his death. It wouldn’t be until the early 1900s that interest in Donne’s poetry and sermons resurrected. Donne was born in 1572 to Elizabeth Heywood and his father, also named John Donne. The family were recusant Catholics and endured prejudicial social and political hostility; at the time, the nationally prescribed faith was Anglicanism, that of the Church of England.

When Donne was approximately four years old, his father passed away and his mother remarried John Syminges, a wealthy physician practicing in London. When he was 11, Donne entered Oxford University and later studied at Cambridge. His Catholicism, however, precluded a degree from either school, as graduation required an oath to Anglican doctrine. After his studies, Donne entered the legal field at Lincoln’s Inn when he was 20 years old. In 1593, Donne’s brother Henry was imprisoned for his Catholicism and died of the plague while incarcerated. Shortly after witnessing his brother’s fatal persecution, Donne capitulated to political pressure and converted to Anglicanism.

During the 1590s, Donne published two volumes of poetry: Satires and Songs and Sonnets, poems of love and religious meditation. Most of Donne’s poems began as manuscripts that would circulate among his social circles. From 1596 through 1597, after the death of his brother and at least two years of legal studies, Donne joined the English naval expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores against Spain as a “gentleman adventurer.” After his return from these travels, he became a private secretary for judge and Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Egerton.

Through his employment with Sir Thomas Egerton, Donne met his future wife, Anne More, who was Egerton’s niece and the daughter of a member of Parliament. Donne, having learned about politics and foreign affairs during his time with Egerton, entered Parliament himself in 1601, and married More secretly. When Egerton and More’s father eventually learned of the marriage, they censured the union, and Donne was removed from Egerton’s employment in 1602. The dowry was withheld, and Donne was imprisoned for a period. Donne and More received the dowry eight years later, though for the first years of their marriage the couple struggled financially to support their growing family.

It is during this middle period of his life that Donne’s writing began to take on a more religious tendency, sometimes embodying deep personal anxiety and doubt. In 1607 he published his collection of Divine Poems, followed three years later by Pseudo-Martyr, a prose tract arguing that an Oath of Allegiance to James I would not contradict the Catholic faith, thus implying Catholics ought to take the Oath. The publication garnered Anglican attention and acceptance, and Donne, despite his profound misgivings, was pressured by James I into ministerial ordination in the Anglican Church (James I even threatened that Donne would not find any alternate occupation). In 1615, Donne was ordained and soon after was named Royal Chaplain. In 1617, Anne Donne died while in labor with their 12th child (who did not survive childbirth). Most critics believe that Donne’s Holy Sonnets, published after his death, are tied to this time of his life that was so marked with hardship and turmoil.

Donne was named dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1621. About three years later, while ill, Donne wrote and published Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions—works reflecting a preoccupation with death and sickness. He died in London on March 31, 1631.

Poem Text

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.

Donne, John. “No Man is an Island.” 1624. DiscoverPoetry.com.


The speaker begins with a blatant negation of the notion that humankind can ever be separate or isolated from one another. Rather than being an “island” (Line 1), every human is connected, forming one big “continent” (Line 3). The speaker elaborates on this sense of unity by painting a picture of how the sea washes away the earth. Just as a landmass is affected by the vanishing of a single piece of earth, an outcropping of land, or a larger manor, humanity is reduced and affected by the death of each human being. A single person’s death “diminishes” (Line 10) the whole population both physically and spiritually. The speaker’s message ends with an admonishment: Rather than taking interest in the names of those around them who have recently died, a person ought to see their fellow humans’ death as a reminder of their shared mortality.