Explaining the Title

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

John Donne

This is an excerpt from a poem by John Donne, a 17th century English poet. The verse that contains this line begins with “No man is an island”, a more well-known phrase. (Let’s ignore the obviously exclusionary language for a moment and assume that he means “No person is an island”). He is exploring the interconnectedness of people specifically within the Catholic Church. The first verse of the meditation, however, is the reason I chose this title.

“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.”

If you are anything like me, that line is confusing. I will try to abridge it a bit at the cost of its artistic value.

“They may be so ill that they do not realize the bell tolls for them; and I may think that I am fine, but those around me noticed I was ill and sounded the bell for me.”

In the society in which this was written, the church bell would toll out to mark all important occasions: births, weddings, celebrations, but in this situation, Donne is referring to death. Furthermore, since the subject can hear the bell, perhaps we can assume that the bell is not tolling for his physical death, but another kind of death. I want to shave off all the religious references here and steal the lines to illustrate my own concepts. In our situation, I am ringing the bell (and I am far from the only one) and I am trying to signal an attack rather than a death. Attack may even be the wrong word, because the real dangers we face are not from malicious parties, but rather people acting upon instincts and tendencies. Since we are all members of the American society, that bell is tolling “for thee”.

In the first essay, I am going to talk about how the way we typically vote in America is eroding our leverage and putting us in danger.

P.S. Just so no one gets any warped view of me thinking that I spend my evenings pouring over 17th century European poetry manuscripts by candle light as I take notes with a feather quill, the first time I heard the quote I have used as my title was on Seinfeld. Kramer says it to a man he encounters that he believes is an old roommate who still owes him money. He says, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Grossbard. It tolls for thee.”

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