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No man is an island (John Donne)

One of the best known pieces of literature in English literature: a fragment from the poem Meditation XVII, by John Donne.

In 1624 the English writer John Donne wrote a prose work titled “Devotions upon Emergent Occasion”. These writings are reflections that he wrote after recovering from a serious illness, consisting of 23 parts called “devotions”. Every part describes one stage of the sickness and is divided into three sections: a mediation, an expostulation and a prayer. The best known part is “Meditation XVII”, in which the patient prepares himself to die, and the most famous passage of this meditation is the one contained in this video and reads like this (original old English spelling):

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; 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 Mannor 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.

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 friends or of thine own were;
each man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

ISLAND= /lənd/ A piece of land completely surrounded by the sea.
The S in this word is a late addition introduced simply to make it look more Latin (insula), but it never belonged there and is not pronounced.

THE CONTINENT= When an English person says “the Continent” they usually mean Europe (and they say “the Continent” more often than they call it Europe). Anyway, here, the words “Continent” and “Europe” are used metaphorically to signify the whole humankind (all the people in the world).

THE MAIN= If a country or territory extends over islands and continent, “the main” is the part on the continent (assuming that is the largest part). For example, if you are in Tasmania you would consider continental Australia as “the main” or “mainland”.

CLOD= A lump or chunk, especially of earth or clay (it is a small fragment of earth).

BE= (present subjunctive form of the verb to be, rarely used today) The subjunctive forms were used to express that something is not real. Here we are giving an example, making a supposition: "suppose a clod is washed away" (but we're not saying that a clod IS washed away, that is not happening for real, only in my imagination). The conjugation of this present subjunctive is: I be, you be, he be, we be, you be, they be.

WASHED AWAY= Pushed or carried away by the force of the water.

EUROPE  IS THE LESS= Europe becomes smaller.

PROMONTORY= A part of rock or land jutting out into the sea.

WERE= Notice that this is not a normal past tense, it is an “unreal past” (or past subjunctive). The small clod of earth is not a promontory, but it is similar to a promontory in this respect. We are comparing both things, but the equation is just imaginary, it is not real (a clod is not a promontory), so we don’t use the present tense, we use the unreal past, the subjunctive form, to show that we are talking about an unreal thing.
This use of the subjunctive only survives in the conjugation of the verb TO BE (since all other verbs have now the same form for real and unreal tenses, but even this is disappearing (especially in America) and now we can say “it is AS IF that man WAS my father” (but he is not).
Past subjunctive of the verb to be: I WERE, you were, HE WERE, we were, you were, they were.
Past tense: I was, you were, he was, we were, you were, they were.

MANOR= A very big house or a small palace in the British countryside (see picture).

THY= (old English or literary) Your (before a consonant)

THINE= Your (before a vowel)

DININISHES= To diminish is to make smaller or to take away part of it.

INVOLVED= If you are involved in something you are implicated in it, closely connected to it in some way.

MANKIND= Humanity, the human race, all the people.

THEREFORE= (formal) so...

SEND NOT TO= Don't send to. If you send somebody to do something you tell them to go and do it. If you send them to know something, you tell them that they should go and find it out (in this case by asking other people).
In old English all verbs could simply use NOT to form the negative, so the negative of WILL was WILL NOT, and the negative of EAT was EAT NOT. We still use the phrase "forget-me-not" to name a flower (see picture).

FOR WHOM= After a preposition we don't use the form WHO, we use the form WHOM.

TOLLS= If a large bell tolls, it sounds slowly at regular intervals. In Christian religion, when a person dies, the bells of their church toll to announce it. So if you hear a bell tolling, you ask people who the bell is tolling for, and that’s how you find out who died (it doesn’t happen in cities anymore, but it is still common in villages and small towns).
The phrase “for whom the bell tolls” turned into the title of a famous novel by American writer Ernest Hemingway about the Spanish Civil War.

THEE= /ði:/ (old English or literary) you (object form in the singular)
- I bought thee a present because thou are my friend = I bought you a present because you are my friend. (“thee” is the singular object form and “thou” /ðaʊ/ is the singular subject form; “ye” /ji:/was the plural subject form and “you” /ju:/ the plural object form)

The idea behind this fragment is that all human beings are interconnected, in communion, and we should care about each other just as an arm shouldn’t be indifferent about what happens to the heart or the eyes, since what happens to one part necessarily affects all the others in some way or another.

So ignoring others is a foolish thing to do, let alone harming others.

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