In this two-paragraph meditation, Donne meditates upon the sounding of a church bell signifying a funeral and connects it to his own present illness. He wonders if the person is aware that the bell has sounded for him. (Obviously, if someone is dead, he does not know and it is too late for him to meditate upon it.) Donne then applies the idea to himself, using the bell to become aware of his own spiritual sickness, and to everyone else by noting that the church is a universal establishment. Every human action affects the rest of humanity in some way. The church’s universality comes from God, who is in charge of all “translations” from earthly to spiritual existence which occur at death. Although God uses various means to achieve this changeover, God is nonetheless the author and cause of each death. Donne also compares this death-knell to the church bell calling the congregation to worship, as both bells apply to all and direct their attention to matters more spiritual than material.
Donne uses an interesting image when he considers how God is the “author” of every person and every death: “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” Whether a man dies of old age, in battle, from disease or accident, or even through the actions of the state dispensing its idea of justice, God has in a sense decided the terms of each death. As universal author, God will bind together these various “translated” pages, each man a chapter, into a volume which is open to all. In the new universal “library” of mankind, “every book shall lie open to one another.” Yet all of this imagery takes up only one sentence, and Donne returns in the next sentence to the meaning of the bell.
Donne also recounts how the various religious orders disagreed about which group should be given the privilege of ringing the first bell calling everyone to