“Meditation XVII” is part of a group of 23 essays entitled Devotions upon emergent occasions. This is a prose work which Donne wrote during his illness in the winter of 1623-24. He completed it during his long convalescence and published it under his own name in the spring of 1624. This is one of the few works published by Donne during his lifetime. It was reprinted four times in the next 15 years. In his sickness Donne was able to identify himself with a sick and suffering humanity. He was confined to be for a long time and while he seemed to be alone and isolated, he became aware of his oneness, through God, with the whole mankind. In his writings, Donne repeatedly returns to the idea that man is a world. Another image that he uses is that of God as a single author. He comes to the conclusion that we are all connected by being (because we are) the work of a single creator and we are all equal because we are parts of that creator’s universe.
In the first line Donne refers to a bell which used to be rung in the Anglican service of his time. This bell, also called “the passing bell”, was rung to announce that a person was dying and its purpose was to call upon the parishioners to reflect on the state of the dying person and pray for him.
The passage begins with a note of doubt because Donne wishes to stimulate his congregation to reflect on death as a reality which concerns not only the person for whom the bell is tolling, but all of us. The first metaphor, based on the image of the unity of the human body, occurs in lines 5 to 9. The metaphor based on the image of the unity of a continent occurs in lines 18 to 22. Donne compares mankind to a book written by a single author and (compares) death to the translation of the various chapters of that book into a better language. He compares the various causes of death to different translations. He says that some pages are translated by sickness, some by age, some by war and others by justice. No translation is better than the others, they are all equal and the hand of God is in each translation, God is present at the moment of the death of each of us.
In the first part of the passage Donne is thinking about the condition of the man who is dying, but also about his own condition as a human being who will have to face death one day, whereas in the second part he is reflecting on mankind as a whole.
The main words used in the passage, apart from I, ME, MY and MAN are BELL, TOLLS, and words referring to death. These words indicate the intensity with which Donne reflects on death in general. His particular interest in death is probably caused by his illness. At the beginning of Devotions he describes the various stages of his fever in a number of Latin hexameters.