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Learning outcomes

Students will evaluate the messages from selected poetry, literature, art and popular music to discover relevance of and make comparisons to John Donne’s philosophy from Devotions(1623): “No man is an island, entire of itself;. . .”

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

4 Hours


  • copy of words from John Donne’s Devotions which begins “No man is an island. . .” and ends “. . .and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
  • copy of W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”
  • print of Pieter Brueghel’s Icarus
  • tape of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock”

Technology resources

tape player


Students should memorize John Donne’s short piece (actually, one long compound-complex sentence). This can be done in short exercises of 5 minutes each over several days, with brief discussions on historical significance & meaning of parts of Donne’s writing. Memorizing this writing is important if the teacher would like to use the philosophy as a point of comparison to other pieces throughout the school term. Once memorized, the student is more likely to feel “ownership” of the short passage. (Memorizing this piece also has the effect of internalizing the rhythmic pattern of a complex, poetic writing style not frequently encountered by 8th-graders.)


  1. Students write a short response paper of 2-3 paragraphs, in which they react to any of these: Donne’s language, sentence structure, use of metaphor, parallelism, alliteration, or basic meaning of poet’s message. After the unit has been completed, this short paper will be used by the students as a means of self-evaluation for understanding and growth in perspective.
  2. Brainstorm possible meanings of Donne’s message. Students should cite examples from current events (random killings or deaths from natural disasters) or historical events (U.S. isolationism prior to WWII. . .) Is the message more appropriate at a personal, social, or political level? What are some consequences of following Donne’s philosophy?
  3. Using copy of words to Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” without identifying it as a once-popular song, assign groups to discover contrasts to Donne piece. Groups should consider tone, mood, message of poet and speculate on underlying reasons for this perspective. After groups have reported to class, reassemble as a whole class & play tape of song. Students generally like to sing along to this song. Discuss fact that song was written when Paul Simon was quite young, and Donne’s sermon was written after his 50th birthday. Ask if this is significant.
  4. Using one or more prints of Pieter Brueghel’s Icarus (without identifying title), have groups study the work and attempt to determine its “meaning.” Make no mention of the drowning Icarus in the lower right foreground. Groups should report their findings regarding purpose of the painting, any messages Brueghel has for the viewer, any connection to Donne piece.
  5. As a whole group, discuss title and placement of Icarus in painting. Ask students to comment on comparison/contrast to Donne’s passage. What would Donne say about the seeming nonchalance of plowman & shepherd toward a boy falling from the sky? How is this attitude demonstrated in modern life, to modern events?


Using information and ideas from this unit, students should write a well-developed persuasive essay defending or refuting John Donne’s philosophy. Examples from Devotions should be cited; the writer must convince his/her readers that Donne’s words do or do not have relevance in modern society.

Supplemental information


I have used this lesson with great success, particularly with those students who commit Donne’s words to memory. They delight in reciting it; many will quote, independently and without prompting, portions of the piece as supporting “evidence” in persuasive or response papers. The universal, “interconnected” message can be applied to many pieces of literature as a comparison.

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • Reading: Literature

        • Grade 9-10
          • 9-10.RL.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 8

  • Goal 1: The learner will use language to express individual perspectives through analysis of personal, social, cultural, and historical issues.
    • Objective 1.04: Reflect on learning experiences by:
      • evaluating how personal perspectives are influenced by society, cultural differences, and historical issues.
      • appraising changes in self throughout the learning process.
      • evaluating personal circumstances and background that shape interaction with text.
  • Goal 3: The learner will continue to refine the understanding and use of argument.
    • Objective 3.03: Evaluate and create arguments that persuade by:
      • understanding the importance of the engagement of audience by establishing a context, creating a persona, and otherwise developing interest.
      • noting and/or developing a controlling idea that makes a clear and knowledgeable judgment.
      • arranging details, reasons, and examples effectively and persuasively.
      • anticipating and addressing reader/listener concerns and counterarguments.
      • recognizing and/or creating an organizing structure appropriate to purpose, audience, and context.
  • Goal 5: The learner will respond to various literary genres using interpretive and evaluative processes.
    • Objective 5.02: Study the characteristics of literary genres (fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry) through:
      • reading a variety of literature and other text (e.g., young adult novels, short stories, biographies, plays, free verse, narrative poems).
      • evaluating what impact genre-specific characteristics have on the meaning of the text.
      • evaluating how the author's choice and use of a genre shapes the meaning of the literary work.
      • evaluating what impact literary elements have on the meaning of the text.