John Donne

Meditation 17

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Meditation 17 Summary

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English writer and Church of England cleric John Donne lived from 1572 to 1631. Much of his canon of literature stemmed from his devotionals and sermons. During a period of personal illness that also included the deaths of his wife, some of their children, and many friends, Donne wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in which “Meditation 17” appears. Donne muses on mortality, salvation, and the afterlife. His work would have a lasting influence on subsequent literature. Passages in “Meditation 17” would provide the titles for Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940 and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island in 1955.

Aware that he is growing closer to his own death, John Donne thinks about the impact death has upon humanity at large. He hears a funeral bell ringing and understands that everyone is part of a larger life as one together, and should be able to learn from the suffering of others. This, he believes, would lead to a better way of living one’s individual life and thus people would become better prepared to face their own inevitable deaths. Death, he presents, as nothing more than a passage into another realm of existence. As Donne examines his own existence and tries to draw meaning from his life, he hopes to find explanations for mankind in general or at very least, all of his fellow Christians.

“Meditation 17” is likely John Donne’s best-known passage of prose. Though it is not lengthy, it has a wide scope. As the meditation begins, Donne is seriously ill. When he hears the church bell ringing as an announcement of a funeral, he makes a connection between that death and the state of his own health. Although he spends a moment wondering if the dead person knows the bell is ringing for him, he is well aware that in death, the time has passed for the person to meditate on it. He turns to his own illness and focuses on the ringing bell as a meditation on his own illness of spirit. He recognizes that the church is universal. He believes that every human decision and action has an effect on the collective humanity.

Donne acknowledges the church’s universality is a creation of God. God divines everything that happens after death, including the passage from an earthly existence to the eternal realm. Donne connects the tolling of the death bell at funerals to the ringing of church bells that calls followers to church services. He says there is a similarity between the bells in that they are concerned with the spiritual side of mankind. God, he believes, controls all instances of death. Donne goes on to compare God’s role as an “author” of all people and of their ultimate deaths to a book. With each death, a chapter in the book does not disappear as one might predict, but rather it is translated into a new and better language. Even in situations involving war, old age, and disease, God is still the author of each death as he devises the ways the deaths take place. He includes in this cases where the governing institution has used death as part of its system of justice.

Donne thinks about the way religious orders have struggled to decide which group would have the honor of ringing the first bell to call people to prayer. As it was decided that the first order to rise in the morning would be afforded the opportunity, Donne makes another connection to the funeral bell saying that he and others must take the importance of that bell into account. In the portion of the meditation immortalized by Hemingway, he points out that the bell rings for the person with ears to hear it.

In the next portion of the text, Donne muses further on the concept that all human beings are connected to one another. He compares humans’ connection to each other to the soils that make up a continent. Just as removing some dirt will make a continent smaller, the loss of a human life makes mankind smaller, thus, he believes, the ringing of a funeral bell signifies a death which lessens mankind for everyone. As he ends the piece, Donne stresses that he is not trying to point out or increase misery because people already have enough of that, but rather he wants to show that wisdom is gained from the suffering and deaths of others and that those who recognize that can be more prepared for the end of their own lives.