In writing recently of my granddaughter's graduation from Ivanhoe Elementary School, I noted that her class recited John Donne's "famous poem" that begins:
"No man is an iland, intire of it selfe . . ." and which ends unforgettably:
"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
That famous quotation is not from a poem, but from a work of prose, namely Donne's "Meditations From Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII."
Like most unlettered persons, I am familiar with the quotation mostly from its use by Ernest Hemingway as the theme of his novel of the Spanish Civil War, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
I may have thought of it as poetry partly because Hemingway's publishers (Scribner's, 1940) chose to print the words as an inverted pyramid, each line diminishing in length from the one above it. Though this does not represent any poetic form I know of, it does give the impression of a stylized form other than prose.
I cannot deny, however, that my error was one of ignorance.
As usual, whenever I err, the letters of correction range in tone from modest helpfulness to triumphant pedantry.
B. Patrick Lane is succinct and matter-of-fact: "Famous, yes. Poem, no. The quotation from John Donne is from his Meditation XVII. All prose."
Walter D. Douglas allows that my assumption is a "common mistake," and expands the famous quotation as follows:
"Perchance hee for whom this Bell tolls may bee so ill, as that he knowes not it tolls for him. . . . All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated. . . . The Bell doth toll for him that thinkes it doth; and though it intermit againe, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him hee is united to God. . . . No man is an island entire of itself; everyman is a peece of the continent, a part of the maine. If a clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were. Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . . ."
Sandra Rochowansky of Reseda sends a copy of the entire meditation, and adds a scholarly comment: "Donne fell ill in 1623. During this time he wrote some truly magnificent sermons and meditations upon death which rival his best devotional verse. Donne, of course, was ordained in the Anglican church in 1615 and appointed Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn in 1616. His sermons and meditations (genres unfortunately neglected today) remain exemplums for some of the most moving pulpit oratory delivered in the English language. . . . His words still give us a lot to contemplate."
John R. Phelan MD, Ph.D., calls not on his own erudition but that of his wife, "the English Lit. professor at Northridge," to cite the correct source, in which, he notes, "that doughty Roman Catholic-turned-Anglican divine considers his own serious illness, his mortality, and man's common humanity. I recommend it to your reading. It is masterful."
In advising me that the passage is prose, not poetry, David R. Evans, a 1985 recipient of the bachelor of arts degree from Pomona College, adds an admittedly "pedantic aside."
"Though Donne's meter was often quite irregular, the passage you quoted would have been too adventuresome even for him, probably the most adventuresome of the 17th-Century poets."
Evans was in the flush of packing off to graduate school at the University of Virginia, which perhaps should excuse his slightly patronizing tone:
"Since you stand (almost uniquely in the L.A. area, it seems) for the propriety of language usage, you personally also find it important to cite accurately when you discuss literature. Donne was one of the greatest poets of his time, as well as perhaps the most outstanding rhetorician ever to use English. He deserves correctitude in quoting."
Theodore Malnechuk of San Diego was inspired to correct me in limerick form:
Though the error you've made's been outDonne,
As a judge of 'bad Hemingway' fun
You should know that 'No man is an island ... ' may scan,
But it's prose. How much verse is it? None.
Occasionally I do expose holes in my learning, but certainly I am rarely as mistaken as Harry F. Rosenthal, of Associated Press, in a recent reference to Henny Penny under the headline (in the Daily Report) "Henny Penny was right: Sky is falling in many ways."
"Henny Penny was right," he wrote. "The sky is falling in many ways she never imagined. She sounded her 'goodness gracious, me' alarm after an acorn fell out of a tree and struck her head. Nowadays there are 5,594 pieces of junk in the heavens large enough to be tracked and to come back to Earth. . . ."
"I have been telling this story for the last 50 years to my own children, my grandchildren and now to my great-grandchildren," writes Farral Kruggel of Ontario. "It is the story of Chicken Little. How he was sure the sky was falling when the acorn fell on his tail. . . . Chicken Little ran to tell Henny Penny, Foxy-Loxy and Turkey Lurkey, and a few others, besides the king. . . . After all these years I can't believe I have been telling this story wrong."
Let's see what the Ph.D.s can make of that.