The literary fascination for the phrase “For whom the bell tolls”, began ever since the founder of the Metaphysical Poets, John Donne, published his poem, ““Devotions Upon Divergent Occasions”.
My appreciation for this line began years ago when I noticed its magical quality to evoke glimpses of a past steeped in history.
A bell, as an idiophone percussion instrument, has a personality of its own. School bells remind me of peals of childish laughter, while door bells sometimes sound like dignified and sober butlers! What is remarkable to note is that each bell has their own unique identity.
As I grew older, this famous quote fascinated me even more, since bells emerged to become a philosophical representation of civilization. A representation of the undeniable role that society plays in our existence.
The church bells, during Donne’s time, symbolized various important events in the life of a person, including events of celebration, grief and even danger.
What made this 17th century English poet’s poem a masterpiece, was possibly the eloquence through which it conveyed the mutual dependency of man and society.
The 1954 Nobel Prize Laureate, Ernest Hemingway, went to further immortalize this phrase, “For whom does the Bell toll?” in his book with the same title about the Spanish Civil War.
While Hemingway’s classic novel touched upon the relationship between us and society, there was a difference. It reflected the harsh impact of society (in the guise of war) on people and highlighted how violence and beliefs can batter people and their lives.
Coming back to Donne, his famous line has been subjected to various interpretations. My choice from the numerous interpretations, would be the one that conveys the connection we have with the world. Then it would imply that the line reflects a philosophical observation. An observation that we are not meant to be isolated creatures living in our own world. We are social beings who are affected by whatever joy or pain our fellow members experience.
I find the acknowledgement of this reality, is even more significant when it comes to happiness in our life.
The other day, I came across a story about an unhappy, wealthy and beautiful lady who believed that she lived in an eternal state of “unhappiness”.
A meeting with a poor sweeper woman makes this beautiful lady realize the folly in her approach to life. The sweeper lady had lost both her husband and her son in tragic circumstances and had miraculously found her “happiness” again.
A starving orphaned little kitten’s unexpected arrival into the sweeper lady’s life had changed her perspective of life and that life was worth living for. For the first time since the horrifying tragedies in her life, she had found a reason to live. The little kitten taught her that happiness can be derived by making others happy too.
This motivated her into finding ways to do something for others. Soon, she found joy by helping and supporting others in her own way and seeing them happy, because of what she does for them.
The wisdom shared by the poor sweeper lady awakened the beautiful and wealthy lady into the realization of how much happiness depends on her state of mind. She realized how her life could be happier, if she reached out more to others and the environment.
This story is symbolic in many ways. It does not merely convey to us about how we can be happy but a lot more.
A society’s success lies in the harmony that its members have with each other. More importantly, what each member contributes to the society’s harmony, progress and growth.