Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne (1572-1631)

The meaning of ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls’ is fairly straightforward. We should feel a sense of belonging to the whole of the human race, and should feel a sense of loss at every death, because it has taken something away from mankind. The other famous phrase from this Meditation that has entered common usage is ‘no man is an island’, because no individual can subsist alone. We need not only social company and companionship, but also an awareness of how we all have a share in the world: we are all part of the human race and the suffering and passing of another human being should affect us, not least because it is a regular reminder that one day, it will be us for whom the funeral bell is tolling.

The funeral bell that tolls for another person’s death, then, also tolls for us, in a sense, because it marks the death of a part of us, but also because it is a memento mori, a reminder that we ourselves will die one day. Ernest Hemingway’s great novel about the Spanish Civil War was named For Whom the Bell Tolls after Donne’s line, not just because death pervades the protagonist Robert Jordan’s thoughts but because Spain’s fate will affect everyone. George Orwell, whose political writing was changed forever as a result of fighting in the Spanish Civil War, would doubtless agree.