The Bell: Awareness of Human Mortality

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...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...may have caused it to toll for me...and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne returns again and again to the imagery of the tolling funeral bell that inspired his Meditation XVII, associating it with the idea of Death and Mortality.

Renaissance Context

Mortality was an unavoidable concern in the Renaissance, due to the spread of the Plague. One could not avoid thinking of one's own death, when others were dying daily all around. Even without taking the Plague into account, it was a harsher era than we, the products of the twentieth century, can imagine, without the luxuries and medical miracles that we take for granted. Donne himself frequently wrote and preached on themes of death and mortality; yet he was not as morbid as one might expect, for his religious faith gave him hope that "death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die," as his Holy Sonnet 10 triumphantly declares; and that death itself was not so much a horror to be feared and avoided as an honor - the passing from a worser life to a better - to be joyously anticipated.

Literary Influence

The influence of Donne's writings has proved to be great, not only in his own time but ever since, down to our own days. Many literary works display this influence. Here we look at several literary works with themes of death and the awareness of human mortality, including one with a direct link to Donne's Meditation: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

Donne Today: Modern Conceptions of Death and Mortality

The Renaissance, as we have seen, was vividly aware of human mortality. What about our own age? Do we think about death at all, until it happens? If so, what do we think about it? Our group conducted class surveys to gain insight into these questions. We also discuss the modern-day plague of AIDS and how this fatal, epidemic disease has functioned in our society as the Plague functioned in Donne's: making people more aware of their own mortality.

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