“No man is an island”, John Donne famously wrote.
When I looked up the etymology of ‘island’ I was surprised to find that it has a different etymology to the word ‘isle’: ‘island’ has roots in Old English; it has always meant land surrounded by water. ‘Isle’ traces its ancestry back to the Latin insula, which meant ‘island’.
Insula also features in the etymology of our modern word ‘insular’, which traveled from meaning ‘pertaining to or of an island’ in the 1600s to ‘being cut off from other people’ in the 1700s.
The other word that can trace its roots back to insula is ‘isolated’:
“standing detached from others of its kind”, 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island.”
Another etymology I am interested in is that of the world ‘alone.’ Its meaning hasn’t altered at all in its history; it has always meant to be by one’s self, solitary. What I love about it though – what I find quite poetic – is that our modern spelling of alone is a contraction of all ane from the Old English all ana.
All one. By your own and one self. Wholly alone.
Recently, we have all been in lockdown. Some of us have been squished into living quarters shared with flatmates or family members. So, isolated from the world at large but far from being wholly alone. Some people have been living by themselves; whether or not this solitude has been glorious or something akin to solitary confinement will have depended upon the person experiencing it and the conditions under which they were isolated.
Donne wrote “No man is an island” in the winter of 1623, while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. In the spiritual aloneness of a near-death experience, he wrote a reflective prose work of which this is one part:
“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”
All of us, whether hunkered down in little groups or all-one, will have been aware of our society grappling with the Coronavirus beyond the four walls of our accommodation; our isolation has happened in the context of a communal emergency. Domestically, we have been functioning as little self-contained home units; we are islands. Some people have been able to sense themselves as islands belonging to a nation; some will have lost the sense of this. How are we to reconnect with them? Why might they find it hard to maintain a sense of belonging?
Involved in mankind.
Donne was able to contextualise his individual illness and possible death as a universal experience. We have all been forced to isolate from each other, but this has been in the name of a societal – as well as individual – good. People are talking about the fact that our world has irrevocably changed because of the pandemic, that things will never return to normal. That’s fine with me; the ‘old normal’ all too often operated as if everyone was all one, was not a piece of something larger. I’d like a ‘new normal’ where we all consider ourselves to be “involved in mankind.” Where no man is an island.
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; 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 Mannor 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.
From Devotions upon Emergent Occassions and severall steps in my Sicknes, Meditation 17, written in the winter of 1623.
(Donne’s original spelling and punctuation)