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"No Man is an Island" - John Donne

This week, Marty and I are happily vacationing in northern Wisconsin, graciously hosted by dear friends who have a house on an island on one of the many lakes here. (See thumbnail photo.) So, of course, music about islands popped into my head.


The summer before my senior year in high school, I was fortunate to sing alto in a choral group from northern Indiana called “Sounds of Hope.” The ensemble traveled to Europe with a new roster of students every summer, visiting and performing in eight different countries. “No Man is an Island,” a traditional folk song using the words of John Donne as the text, was a part of our program.


One of the places we visited was the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. There is a chapel there that was a fairly new simple cement structure in 1976 (it was added to and enhanced in the early 2000’s.) There was no altar, no pews, but the empty cement walls provided beautiful acoustics for singing. The choir solemnly filed in after we had visited the rest of the camp, now a memorial.


I gave the pitch with a pitch pipe, and we began singing, “No Man is an Island.” However, we had to give up after about one phrase, because our throats were tight and tears filled our eyes. It wasn’t intended to be a performance, just an experience, so we weren’t disappointing an audience. We stood quietly for a long while, just listening in our own minds to John Donne’s words that we had memorized. That silence while we stood there was, I believe, a much more powerful experience than singing would have been, and has stayed with me (and I’m sure many of my friends) for the rest of our lives.


You have probably heard this famous quotation from the British poet, John Donne,(1572-1631). I think that most people assume that it simply means that we need each other as human beings - the idea that we do not thrive when isolated from others. But Donne meant much more than that. More broadly, he cared passionately about the eternal and constant concerns of every human being and believed that boundaries between you and I do not exist.


Here is an excerpt from the full poem:

“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…No man is an island, entire of itself…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.”


Using land as a metaphor for the human race, Donne makes one of the first known artistic pleas for the unity of humanity. You can imagine how radical this way of thinking was in a time of huge class distinctions, widespread slavery and the total subjugation of people based on gender, race, and social class. In the line “…for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” Donne’s “thee” is citing the entire unified race of humanity. The poet is imploring his fellow man to align with his vision of unity before we die.


In my lifetime, I have not experienced a more appropriate time in our American society, and our world community as a whole, to pursue such a vision than NOW. If we can have the courage to look past our personal “island,” or as it is sometimes described - “think outside our box” - we might just start a new and positive movement toward uniting humanity as Donne dreamed of four centuries ago.


Here is the Victoria Chorale, singing that same arrangement that I sang in 1976:



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