John Dunne and Simon and Garfunkel; Are We An Island, or Are We Not?

This post is dedicated to Seth Hammonds, who died at age 15. Oh, Seth, we hardly knew ye.

In John Dunne’s poem, “No Man is an Island”, he says no man stands alone, even if he should wish it. Yet Simon and Garfunkel say “I Am A Rock; I Am An Island”. Who’s right? And can a tone and musical notes contradict its own words? Listen to them both, really listen, and I think you’ll get your answer.

John Donne says no man is an island, all by himself. Each man is a piece of mankind, of society, a “piece of the continent”, “A part of the main” (mainland). If a ball of dirt from the European continent gets washed away from the shore, a piece of Europe itself is gone and now there is less of Europe. But it doesn’t have to be something as large as a continent. It could be a piece of a cliff (promontory) washing away. It could be part of your own land, or your friend’s land. Something that hurts one, hurts all.

“Each man’s death” says Dunne, “diminishes me”. Because he is a part of mankind, each death takes away a little from his own life. Once, when there was a death in a community, the church bell would toll. People would send someone to find out who the bell was tolling for. John Dunne says not to ask. Don’t bother sending anyone. Because it tolls for you, for us, for mankind. We are diminished as a brotherhood, just like a family is less as each member dies.

No Man is an Island
by John Dunne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

In Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “I Am A Rock; I Am An Island”, which is aesthetically pleasing both as a poem and a song, the singers say they are strong. They are hard. like a rock that can’t be moved or broken. They hold themselves separate from society, comparing themselves to an island in a wide ocean. No other piece of land touches it. “I touch no one and no one touches me”. They are protected by pulling themselves into a small piece of life with a hard shell (armor) around their hearts. But by denying the pain and loss that touches all of humanity, they are denying their own place in the world.

The music and tone of the song itself contradicts the words. The singers can try to set themselves apart, but it doesn’t work. Their fortress becomes their prison. The very loneliness of their self-imposed exile has its own forms of torture. They are being crushed by the very pain and loss they are seeking to escape. Their island is not immune.

I Am A Rock. I Am An Island.
Simon and Garfunkel

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window
To the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress steep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship;
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don’t talk of love,
But I’ve heard the words before;
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room,
Safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries
No. You are not an island. There are people who love you. God loves you. He made us brothers and sisters so we can reach out to each other — and help bear the pain. Don’t give up.



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