Written by Hazel Burke


Could Be Verse

Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? In her column, our poetry doctor* Hazel Burke’s using some old, but wise, words from sexy priest John Donne to think her through the big stuff. *she’s not a real doctor

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

John Donne. Extract from Meditation XVII (No man is an island)
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.

I’ve picked this poem, this month, because I think John Donne, writing about 400 years ago, helps me think more clearly about the strange days we’re living in than any of the stuff I’ve read in the news recently. Reading poetry is a good way of thinking through the big stuff.

I’ve extracted this small section from the full ‘Meditation XVII’ as a near-perfect example of how words and ideas can reverberate through the centuries. I suspect a lot of people recognise the phrases ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls’ even if they don’t know the longer piece they are taken from. It’s as though the lines are so good that they have escaped their original context, and burrowed into speeches, book titles and Bee Gees lyrics, like the pre-internet version of a cat meme.

Given that Donne probably wrote these words about 400 years ago, I’m fairly sure it’s not a Brexit poem. But I was reminded of the line ‘No man is an island…’ before the referendum and it made me look up the poem the day the result was announced. When I read it again it gave me goosebumps.

The idea behind these sentences is simple: tiny as we are, we make up increasingly tiny fractions of larger groups. It’s a bit like when children end their address ‘Planet Earth, The Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe’.  

So if a ‘clod’ (a small piece of soil or earth) is washed away from your, or your neighbour’s land, the same sized piece is lost from the whole continent. And if a life is lost, we are all ‘diminished’ because it is a loss to humankind as well as to a small group of family or friends.

“Donne reminds me that I am part of a much, much wider whole.”

People might make maps and draw borders on them, but mud, fish, clouds, pollution, and morals do not stop at borders.

For all kinds of reasons, I tend to think of myself as a larger part of a fairly small group: my family and friends; my street; my city. Of course, I am a part of all of those groups, but Donne reminds me that I am part of a much, much wider whole.

Donne was a Catholic-turned-Anglican-priest and the writer of some of the sexiest poetry ever put down on manuscript. He probably wrote this meditation during his last illness, knowing or suspecting that he was close to death, and reflecting on the religious meaning of death and dying.

On the face of it, he and I do not have much in common. Geographically, Donne lived about 200 miles away from where I live: relatively close, globally speaking. In all other ways our lives are almost unimaginably different. Donne was not, of course, writing for 2016 readers. I’ve read thousands of newly minted words about politics this year. And yet these few words from 400 years ago are somehow so elementally true that they speak more to me than all the others.

Read all of Hazel’s poetry musings here. 


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Written by Hazel Burke

Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking