No man is an island is the opening line from a poem by English poet and cleric John Donne which perhaps is more often referenced via quotations of its final lines, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
However, this poem actually originated as a passage of greater length and written in prose as Meditation 17, from Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Originally written in late 1623 (and published the following year), Devotions was written whilst Donne was recovering from a but unknown illness (possibly relapsing fever or typhus), and forms a reflection of death, rebirth and the Elizabethan concept of sickness as a visit from God, reflecting sinfulness, with each of the 23 devotions within it a meditation on a single day of Donne’s illness.
I mention this because No Man Is An Island is also the title of the latest immersive installation by Angelika Corral and Sheldon Bergman, artist curators of DaphneArts, with the installation itself marking the reopening of the gallery at a new location in Second Life.
Taking its lead from Devotions, the installation offers the opportunity to reflect on Donne’s words as they came to be written in the poem, using a visual setting, music and the spoken word. Full instructions are provided at the landing point – and if you are using the Firestorm viewer, then you should automatically receive the required windlight environment setting. You should also accept the HUD that is offered on arrival. This will attach itself to your world view to present you with a “letterboxed” style view of your surrounding. If, by chance, you’re not using Firestorm and / or the HUD doesn’t attach (or you accidentally reject its request to attach), instructions and an option to obtain the HUD can be found on the wall of the arrival area.
The main setting for the installation and the poem’s recital is very atmospheric – and made more so by the music (played as local sounds, not via any audio stream). Across a windswept stretch of sand stands the silhouette of a lighthouse drawn against the heavy sky, a hut below it lit from within. A candle-lit bridge, with more candles scattered over sand and rocks despite the rain, beckon you forward to hut and lighthouse.
As you approach the hut, the light from within is revealed as a fire, burning brightly in the single room and consuming pages of manuscripts together with a shroud-like blanket. More candles light the way up the lighthouse and its single door. Inside lies the opportunity to listen to a recital of the poem, and contemplate the sculptures that sit within the lighthouse walls.
Perhaps disarmingly simple in appearance, No Man Is An Island is actually nuanced and layered in presentation. Within Meditation 17, Donne is considering the nature of death (his own), and its impact (on him, if it is fact claiming another and not him), noting:
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 …. any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
Thus, within the hut with have the fire and the burning of manuscripts, many of the pages painstakingly written and illustrated by hand. They represent the idea that a loss does not just impact the one or the few, but lessens the whole; in their burning, the pages are not just lost to whomever set them ablaze, but are lost also to all who might otherwise have read them. Similarly, the blanket with its edge caught within the flames might be taken as a death shroud, symbolising, Donne’s view that any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde
In addition, the presence of the lighthouse offers reference to life and death, presenting a balance of views that reflects Donne’s thoughts. On the one hand, it was once perhaps the loneliest job on Earth, undertaken in isolation, would his passing of a lighthouse keeper really be missed by the world? But on the other, the role by its very nature was to protect the lives of those at sea, steering them away from the risk of death through the loss of the vessel beneath them – so yes, the loss of a lighthouse man could be sorely missed by the rest of us.
Other references are more obvious – the island-like setting, the rain (the curtained veil of death) – even our place in the cosmos (or what Donne might have regarded as God) is brought into focus, both visually and through the eternal questions repeatedly asked at the landing point.
- DaphneArts (Honeyoe Falls, rated: Adult)