Every man is an island

by Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1595
Donne, unknown English artist ca 1595

On ISISA’s blog http://www.isisa.org/isisablog.php?ac=post&id=10&p=1&m&y, Swedish writer Anders Källgård reflects upon John Donne’s famous poem Every man is an island:

“One of the most famous island quotations, ”No man is an island,” originates from a beautiful 17th-century text written by the English poet John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe;

every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;

if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,

as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor 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.

This text deserves to be analysed.

The use of the word ”man” for ”human being” or ”man and/or woman” can be discussed, for example, but today, blogging for ISISA, I will only discuss Donne’s words from an island perspective.

I am sure Donne was a wise man, knowing a lot about his fellow humans, us fellow humans; of course he was right in his view that no man is ”intire of itselfe” and that all human beings are ”involved in Mankinde.” Concerning islands Donne seems to have been less well informed, however, and actually in desperate need of some island studies, suggesting as he does that an island is ”intire of itselfe.” That is simply not true. Islands are definitely involved in, and affected by, their surroundings and environment, including things like invasions, pollution and climate change (why else would Kiribati bother about carbon dioxide emissions from remote continents?).

In fact, if you think about it, men and islands have a lot in common. Both men and islands are more than fragments; they are well-defined units (a man ends where the skin is, an island ends where the coast is). Also, both men and islands form capable biological units (a man can think, for example, an island can house an ecological system). But neither a man nor an island is ”intire of itselfe,” since men as well as islands tend to be proud but frail components of larger, much more complex units and systems (men have relations, for example, and islands belong to archipelagoes and nations, and, at the end of the day, both men and islands are confined to Earth Island).

Consequently, Donne was wrong.

Every man is an island.”

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