A few days ago, I woke up with a new song in my head. The critical word in the previous sentence is “new.” Up until that morning, the song that had been playing in my mind was “Yellow Submarine,” probably because it seems like we’ve all been living in one for the past month. But this new song was different: it was an extraction from John Donne’s familiar poem “No Man Is An Island,” set to a simple tune. I learned it back in the second grade and in those days, we rehearsed or sung it in choir at least once or twice a month for the next six years. That was a long time ago; I don’t think I’ve thought of that song for more than sixty years.
But suddenly, there it was. Every word, every phrase, every musical note. The musical version we learned is a redaction of Donne’s original poem, but its lyrics were still consistent with Donne’s meaning and intent. It’s a familiar work, but in case you don’t know it, the song goes like this:
No man is an island,
No man stands alone.
Each man’s joy is joy to me,
Each man’s grief is my own.
We need one another,
So I will defend
Each man as my brother,
Each man as my friend.
First, a disclaimer: whoever adapted Donne’s work to music isn’t only talking to or about men. I assume that for poetic reasons, the lyricist had to put gender aside and so I don’t want any of my female friends to feel neglected. What I’m about to say applies to each one of us, female and male, in equal measure. With that said, it’s not surprising that this song is in my mind these days. If you don’t believe that we’re all in this together—that there are no islands—well, a tiny protein molecule that looks strikingly like Shrek has proven you wrong.
Second, a little history. What has come down to us today is only a fragment from a prose work Donne wrote in 1624 entitled “Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasion.” The most familiar fragment is only one stanza, consisting of nine lines. While the opening line—“No man is an island”—is as familiar as an old friend, the last two lines are equally cherished and have been borrowed or used often by other writers, perhaps most famously by Ernest Hemingway: “And therefore never send to know for whom/the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
What Donne knew nearly 400 years ago is a lesson we are tragically relearning today. There is no such thing today—nor has there ever been such a thing—as isolationism. Much as we here in America might like to believe we’re protected on two sides by vast oceans, we’ve discovered that each one of is every bit as vulnerable as every other human being on the planet. We’re as bound to each other as stitches in a quilt. When one breaks or even frays, we’re all at risk. That’s a sobering thought, particularly at a time when division, not unity, is the overriding rule.
The image that accompanies this Musing was taken on the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland by a talented photographer named Klará Pethelová. When I first looked at the image, I focused on the silhouette of a person walking alone. Not anymore. When I look at it now, I see the connection of the land forms; it’s not that the walker has become irrelevant, it’s that she or he is proving once again the tenuous interconnectedness of life, that no one of us is separate from the main.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com