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One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

“One Art” is written by one of the pioneer American poets, Elizabeth Bishop. It was first published in the magazine, The New Yorker in 1976, and later included in Bishop’s final collection, Geography III (1976). This poem is considered one of the most brilliant villanelles ever written in the English language. According to critics, it is an autobiographical expression of Bishop. Bishop wrote this poem during the time she was separated from her partner, Alice Methfessel, four years before her death.

Bishop, in a highly descriptive manner, presents microscopic details of all the things she lost, making it a poem about loss. The poetic voice claims to lose is like “art” that can be practiced or won over, something that can be dazzlingly “mastered,” but that is exactly where the irony of the poem lies. The bold claims she makes as she professes the art of loss are only a meek attempt to understand and internalize her own losses and how to deal with them.

  • Read the full poem “One Art” below:
One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

- from Geography III (1976)
Analysis of One Art by Elizabeth Bishop


Summary

“One Art” is often referred to as Bishop’s autobiographical poem and one of her most famous works. Through this poem, she takes readers on a journey of the losses that she has to endure throughout her life. The poem starts with a bold exclamation that losing is an art that is not hard to master. In fact, it is the intention of certain things to be lost and that is no disaster. Losing is an everyday act, similar to losing a key or wasting some hours. It is not a thing to fret over. One should practice losing and practice it as much as one can. It is not just limited to external physical or abstract objects but losses are also very intrinsic in nature.

One can certainly forget names, places, and memories, and this too is not a disaster. As the poem moves forward, the first-person voice is introduced. This poetic voice claims that she has lost her mother’s watch and three houses until now. She goes on to talk about losing ginormous things like cities, realms, rivers, and even a continent. This allegorical description of the losses paints a poignant picture of her sufferings. The enormity with which she depicts her losses is almost hyperbolic. From this point onwards as the poem builds up, there is but one loss that she speaks of, and it is the loss of this “you.” Yet ironically, she still claims that losses are not hard to master and neither are they catastrophic.

Structure & Form

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a villanelle, a fixed verse form with origins in French baroque. A Villanelle has nineteen lines made up of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and concluded by a quatrain (four-line stanza). There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes in this form. Bishop does not closely adhere to the fixed villanelle form. She improvises the refrains but keeps the tercet-quatrain structure intact. In the first three tercets, she uses the third-person, objective point of view. The rest follows the semi-personal, first-person perspective.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme pattern employed in “One Art” is ABA, making the rhyme in the first and third lines repeat in an alternate pattern in every stanza. Bishop does not employ fixed rhymes, rather she uses several half-rhymes or slant rhymes. For instance, the words “or” and “master” rhyme imperfectly in the fourth tercet. Besides, there is a mosaic rhyme between “last, or” and “master.”

Meter & Scansion

“One Art” uses iambic pentameter, a metric form denoting five iambs in a poetic line. Ten syllables made up of five pairs of repeating unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables comprise this metrical scheme. The scansion of the poem gives a clear understanding of how this meter is used.

The art/ of lo/-sing is/-n’t hard/ to mas/-ter;

so ma/-ny things/ seem filled/ with the/ in-tent

to be/ lost that/ their loss/ is no/ di-sas/-ter.

Lose some/-thing eve/-ry day./ Ac-cept/ the flus/-ter

of lost/ door keys,/ the hour/ bad-ly/ spent.

The art/ of lo/-sing is/-n’t hard/ to mas/-ter.

Then prac/-tice lo/-sing far/-ther, lo/-sing fas/-ter:

pla-ces,/ and names,/ and where/ it was/ you meant

to tra/-vel. None/ of these/ will bring/ di-sas/-ter.

I lost/ my mo/-ther’s watch./ And look!/ my last,/ or

next/-to-last,/ of three/ loved hou/-ses went.

The art/ of lo/-sing is/-n’t hard/ to mas/-ter.

I lost/ two ci/-ties, love/-ly ones./ And, vas/-ter,

some realms/ I owned,/ two ri/-vers, a/ con-ti/-nent.

I miss/ them, but/ it was/-n’t a/ di-sas/-ter.

E-ven/ lo-sing/ you (the/ jo-king/ voice, a/ ges-ture

I love)/ I shan’t/ have lied./ It’s e/-vi-dent

the art/ of lo/-sing’s not/ too hard/ to mas/-ter

though it/ may look/ like (Write/ it!) like/ di-sas/-ter.

The poem begins with an eleven-syllable line, thus having a feminine ending (a line ending with an unstressed syllable). It is followed by a perfect decasyllabic line with the unstressed-stressed, iambic rhythm. The lines ending with the syllable “-ter” are feminine, creating an unrestricted flow to the next line. Besides, some occasional use of trochees marks the shifts in the speaker’s chain of thoughts, such as in the ending of line 5 and the opening of the last quatrain (line 16).

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Symbolism

Symbolism is a poetic technique in which marks, signs, or words are used to represent abstract ideas, qualities, or associations. The meaning of symbolic words differs from their actual literal meaning. There are a few notable symbols in “One Art”:

  • The lost “mother’s watch” represents the difficult relationship that Bishop had with her mother whom she lost at a young age, because of her being institutionalized and then her death.
  • The loss of “names” and “places” also represents a sense of isolation and a loss of identity she might have felt.
  • Lastly, the loss of “three loved houses” represents her childhood that was spent moving from one place to another leading her to have felt uprooted every time. The use of symbolism features the psychologically complex mind of Bishop.

Irony

The predominant irony that is followed throughout “One Art” is that the speaker, in a very didactic and instructive tone, is trying to tell readers that loss is like an “art” and that it can be “mastered” through practice. But as the poem progresses, it turns out that it is to her own self that she is trying to explain the fact as she tries to reassure herself that loss is no “disaster” after all. The poem then becomes a type of lesson imparted by a master or an artist, who has most evidently witnessed a lot of losses throughout her life and has abundant experience. But as the poem breaks in the parathesis—(Write it!)—the readers are introduced to the ironic self of the speaker that preaches the inevitability of losses and has an indifference towards them, but still struggles to accept their pervasiveness.

The speaker in “One Art” portrays all her losses to be of equal magnitude and tries to create an indifference towards each one of them. She simplifies life, but ironically life can never be that simple, a fact remains in the undertone of the poem as she enlists all the things that she has lost. Such complex and ambiguous emotions are included through a tightly restrained form, suggesting irony to be the core of the poem.

Imagery

Imagery is the use of figurative or descriptive language to create a picture or image in readers’ minds. Stanza three makes use of a number of images, like “cities,” “realms,” “rivers,” and “continents.” These images help readers to imagine something enormous, which is a representation of all that she has lost. The extent of her loss can only be compared to the images present in the poem.

Alliteration & Assonance

Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of closely placed words. It occurs in “master;/ so many,” “farther, losing faster,” “my mother’s,” “look! my last,” etc. Assonance is the repetition of the vowel sounds in neighboring words, such as in “losing isn’t,” “lost my mother’s watch,” etc. These devices add to the momentum of the poem. It seems to bring to the surface that there is just so much that the speaker has lost that she is exasperated, but the restraining structure keeps her from falling apart.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a poetic device in which a word or phrase may denote one object or an idea when taken literally but is used to denote something else, suggesting an association or comparison. The predominant metaphor that is present throughout the poem is an analogy formed between losing as a form of “art.” This suggests that coping with loss becomes an emotional skill that can be mastered through practice. Something that is only suffused to be felt is commodified into a skill. This makes “One Art” a metaphoric verse.

Refrain

Refrains are lines that are repeated several times in a poem. There are two refrains in “One Art,” and one of them is entirely repeated: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Bishop is inconsistent about the second refrain, and instead of using it in exact words, she only repeats the words “disaster” at the end of each refrain. The last stanza includes both the refrains.

The repetition of these lines is important. They represent the obsession of the speaker with defeating loss, mastering it, and not feeling rejected. She tries to make sense of the absence that she felt through a retrospective repletion. It acts as intrusive thought occurring when following a course of action. The refrain and rhymes also provide a kind of speed and force to the poem, which in turn has a rather large impact on readers.

Repetition

The first line of the third tercet contains a repetition of the word “losing,” denoting a sense of urgency or rush. This also hints at the extent of human loss. There is an ironic repetition of the word “last” in the fourth tercet. Furthermore, in the next tercet, Bishop repeats “two” to denote the number of “cities” and “rivers” she lost touch with.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-3

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

The first line or the first refrain remains unchanged and is repeated throughout “One Art.” It ends with a semicolon, indicating a kind of pause. This was a deliberate choice made by the poet which instills a sense of confidence in the tone, leaving no room for uncertainties. The claim that is being made here is that losing is an art that is not difficult to “master.” The second line is accompanied by an enjambment at the word “intent,” which introduces a jerk in the initial confidence of the poetic persona. This suggests that it is the “intent” of certain things to be lost. It is as if they want to be lost (a use of personification), yet it is no “disaster.” The second refrain ends with the word “disaster” each time. Bishop took certain liberties in changing the initial wording of this refrain.

Lines 4-6

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

The first line of the second stanza sounds like a command. It states that losing something is an everyday activity. The speaker tells readers to practice it through her tone. The brevity and abruptness of the sentence suggest that she has no patience in clarifying the details. Those who have already experienced the disconcert of losing door keys or an hour spent unproductively can relate to her.

The two examples exhibited are essentially different: the “key” is a physical object and the wasted “hour” is an abstract one. But the suggestion remains that they are both small and unimportant things hence losing them is not so substantial. In the last line, she restates that the art of losing should not be too hard to master.

Lines 7-9

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster. 

The third stanza starts with yet another command. The speaker makes an attempt to inform readers about the specifics of this art and how it is to be done: “losing farther” and “losing faster.” The repetition of “losing” implies a sense of rush that the poem takes forth. This suggests a sense of urgency as the speaker further enlists her losses. The loss of keys or an hour is inconsiderable compared to the things mentioned here.

From line eight onwards, the speaker illustrates the losses that affect the mind. These are not tangible. She talks about losing “names” and “places,” meaning the loss of memories. In the ninth line, she reassures readers that even losing such things as those memories and consequently the emotions will not “bring disaster.” It will not be such a grand matter.

Lines 10-12

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

The first line of this tercet indicates a sudden shift to the first-person, personal voice from the third-person perspective. Up until now, the poetic voice seems to be an instructive one, making commands and giving instructions, but the shift in the point of view denotes that the poet is now addressing herself rather than the readers. She uses her own voice to hint at her own losses, like losing her “mother’s watch” a symbol of a loose mother-daughter relationship. Then she makes an exclamation, “And look!”, in an attempt to attract readers’ attention to her losing “three loved houses.” Yet again after detailing these threads of losses, she uses the first refrain that the art of losing is not that hard to learn. The objectivity the poetic persona tries to maintain hitherto sounds somewhat emotional.

Lines 13-15 

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

The fifth tercet begins with a statement about the immensity of the things that she has lost. It is greater and far more complicated than losing her “mother’s watch” or the “houses.” She has lost two “cities” that that too “lovely” ones. There is a sense of warning when she says “And, vaster,” because her losses just do not end here. They go beyond her owned realms, rivers, and even a continent. Of course, it is practically impossible to lose such things so such losses represent an emotional loss perhaps, one that is more indicative of the overall sentiment. In fact, the enormous nature of the losses makes it seem almost hyperbolic.

The last lines suggest a split in the chain of thoughts, a perfect ricocheting between indifference and sadness. She expresses her grief when she says “I miss them,” but almost immediately the comma divides the sentence creating a split in her thoughts as she claims her second refrain again, “but it wasn’t a disaster.” One half of her mind wants to grieve while the other half wants to deny it.

Lines 16-19

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The very first line of the last quatrain starts with emdash, which alludes to a pause that the speaker is taking before speaking further. After the first five tercets, there is a build-up in the intensity of the losses she had to chew. The emdash allows her a breather before she comes to a kind of certainty about what she has to say. The final loss that she lists is this “you” to whom she addresses with a parenthesis. She declares what she misses the most about this person are their “joking voice” and their “gestures.” The parenthesis allows her to retrospect. She reminisces on this important and the only addressee of “One Art.”

In the next line, she goes on to reaffirm her initial claim about how easy it is to lose and that fact is not a lie. It is most “evident.” The poem ends on the note of a repetition of both the refrains; first the declaration that a loss is not that hard to “master” and then a reassurance that a loss is not a “disaster.” However, the other parenthesis before she finally ends the poem creates a chasm in the final line. She, with a commanding tone, exclaims to herself, “Write it!”, as if she is urging herself to finish the sentence. This acts as a reference to her conflict and the denial of her own feelings. In fact, it denotes that the only person she was instructing throughout the poem was herself all along.

Themes

Loss and Survival

Loss as a theme of “One Art” is the one that is stated most explicitly throughout. It also becomes the central idea of the poem. This piece brings out the pervasive nature of loss, and that it is implicit, almost always inevitable. Bishop elucidates this theme with the various illustrations of losses that occur in people’s lives in general along with the illustrations from her personal life. She claims to lose to be an “art” that can be mastered. The apparent strategy is to actually practice losing more and more to be good at it.

As readers progress towards the end of the poem, what comes to light is that the only way in which losses can be half defeated is through their acknowledgment and acceptance. This is illustrated when Bishop forces a kind of acceptance of her losses when she exclaims—(Write it!)—as if she finally believes that she has been in denial. She is finally coming to terms with it. In this way, the art of losing implicitly becomes the art of survival.

Learn and Practice

There is a reinforcement of the act of practicing and learning in “One Art.” Bishop’s emphasis on the fact that losing is an “art” that can be mastered makes it something that can be learned through deliberate practice. Learning to lose is somewhat a positive take in the otherwise remorseful poem. The instructive voice in the first half of the poem is like that of an expert imparting a lesson to their pupils. As the narrative voice shifts from the third person to the first, readers witness the didactic voice of the poet was after all directed towards her own self. This proves to be an objective approach that the poet applies to her situation in order to make sense of it. Thus, the intricate act of teaching and learning is felt almost as strongly as the act of losing, making learning an important theme and aspect of the poem.

Latent Sadness, Retrospection, and Nostalgia

Through “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop looks at her life in a retrospective manner. She writes of the many losses that she had to endure in her lifetime. She enlists them within a tautly structured framework of a villanelle so as to not allow her emotions to influence her judgment. Thus, she tries to make sense of them although this objective approach only acts as a veneer to her real emotions. In the ending, she breaks the strong frame with emdash and parentheses revealing all that she has denied admitting. Her sadness, although latent, finds its way back to her through a nostalgic reminiscence of her past:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied.


Tone & Mood

What is most apparent about “One Art” is that it presents two kinds of tones: an explicit and an implicit undertone. Both of these tones prove impactful for the readers to understand the psychologically complex idea of loss. The seemingly indifferent or casual tone hides the actual chaos that the speaker tries to deny. BIshop uses a strict poetic form to structure her thoughts in order to check her own emotions, making them not spill out and create a lachrymose mess. However, the minute inevitable nuances give away her real intentions. Her emotions bring to the surface the chaotic and complex nature of her mind.

“One Art” chooses its primary subject matter of “loss.” She enlists all that she has lost and connects with the reader through subjective and objective representations of the losses. The schemes applied by Bishop set a kind of happy-go-lucky mood in the poem. She has a steadfast attachment to the idea of winning over her losses, but their acknowledgment and acceptance are rather difficult. This evokes a pitiful and sad mood in readers. Overall, the mood of the poem remains regretful until the end.

Historical Context

“One Art” acts as an elegy to all the losses that Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) witnessed throughout her life. She first lost her father when she was not even a year old and then saw her mother grieve until she was clinically insane and had to be institutionalized. Bishop eventually ended up losing her mother too in her early twenties. She kept relocating as a child and could not call any particular place her home for too long a time.

Bishop had an exceptional love for traveling and through a fellowship, she received from Bryn Mawr College in 1951, she moved to South America on a boat. She was to finally stop in Brazil for a stay of two weeks but she ended up staying fifteen years. There she met Lota de Macedo Soares and stayed with her until Soares committed suicide in 1967.

Bishop then moved back to Massachusetts, where she took up teaching at Harvard University. In 1971, she met Alice Methfessel, who helped and took care of her in her last years. Both of them traveled together. Their relationship was on its high for five years until Bishop’s behavior and alcoholism got in the way of their relationship. In the spring of 1975, Methfessel got married leaving Bishop alone. Bishop made a will for her inheritance in the name of Methfessel.

Bishop’s life was weighed down by losses and “One Art” is an embodiment of the fact, depicting her life in an autobiographical manner. It took her just two weeks to compose this poem after writing seventeen drafts. The poem was first published in The New Yorker on 26 April 1976. Later the same year, it was included in her poetry collection, Geography III, one of her most positively critiqued works. For this collection, Bishop received the Neustadt International Prize making her the first American and the first woman to receive this accolade. She also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.

Questions and Answers

What does the title “One Art” mean?

In “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop portrays the universality of loss, making it both perpetual and pervasive. This occurrence is common to all—an experience familiar to both the poet and the audience. The poet not only objectively tries to accept and acknowledge her losses but also educates readers of its inevitability. She claims that there is but one art that anyone must practice and it is to learn to lose. The title of the poem becomes relevant as she makes it abundantly clear that the only important lesson that one should inculcate is the art of losing, establishing its supremacy over everything, making it one art.

Another reason for stating the relevance of the title is in the framework of the poem itself. There is a momentum that is built throughout adding to the intensity and importance of the losses that Bishop enlists. After all the survivable losses that she mentions including the loss of the hyperbolic “realms” and “continents” there is but one loss that cracks her core. It is the loss of the only addressee of the poem, this “you.” When everything is lost there is only one that stands out, it is that one loss, under the cover of the structure, that is hard to accept. Hence, again rendering the title relevant.

Why did Elizabeth Bishop write “One Art”?

“One Art” is an autobiographical account of the losses poet Elizabeth Bishop had to suffer throughout her life. As she enlists her losses, they also increase in intensity and importance, but the restrictive fixed form of a villanelle helps her in keeping her own emotions from spilling. This objective approach used by Bishop in “One Art” acts as a medium that helps her make sense of her life after all that had been lost with the purpose of not falling into the emotional trap. In the end, she clearly forces herself to move past this “you.” So, the logical approach and the objectivity in her understanding of loss as an “art” even when losing the addressee, which was almost like a “disaster,” help Bishop survive it. Thus, “One Art” becomes a medium through which she not only meditates on her losses but also learns to accept them.

What is the message of “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop?

The central message of “One Art” is to educate the readers on the fact that life is essentially about losing and moving on. Like any art, a loss can be “mastered.” Elizabeth Bishop, through her poetic persona, imparts this message in her autobiographical account of the losses that she had to suffer. She shows how one must practice losing and how one must lose more and more to be good at it. There is a reassuring message that whatever it is we lose, it is certainly no “disaster.” What also becomes an implicit message is not only mastering these losses but also accepting them. It is only towards the end of the poem that the speaker somewhat comes to terms with her losses. She has to force herself to accept the bitter reality. So, the central acknowledgment of the poem is not to simply master the art of losing but to survive it as well.

What is “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop about?

Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is essentially about losses and how pervasive and unpreventable they are. The poem is also much more than that as it talks about losing as an “art” that can be “mastered” through practice, incorporating a didactic feature to it. The very first line, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” is paradoxical that is carried through the narrative. On the one hand, Bishop believes that one should learn not to pay extra attention to the losses that occur in life, but on the other hand, she suggests readers practice losing. This intention creates a contradiction that is only consolidated through various personal accounts in the poem.

“One Art” also takes readers through the autobiographical depiction of Bishop’s life and all that she lost with time, ranging from mere everyday objects like “keys” or “names and places” to more important things like her “mother’s watch” and “loved houses,” and then to vast, hyperbolic ideas like “cities,” “realms,” “rivers,” and even a “continent.” All of this culminates in the most important thing that she lost, her loved one addressed as “you.” Though it was hard to lose these things, they are after all not a “disaster.” This adds an air of regret to an ironic backdrop, leading readers to sympathize with Bishop.

What does “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop mean?

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop brings to light two essential ideas: the first one is that losing is an “art” and the second one is accepting losses objectively. The essential emphasis is on the act of losing as an “art,” which makes it a kind of skill that can be “mastered” with practice. Bishop seems to be bringing all her losses on one single plane. For her, losing everyday objects like “keys” is equivalent to losing the most valuable person in her life, the addressee of the poem, “you.” Bishop lost so much throughout her life that losing further was not any harder than the preceding ones. Hence, this commodification of loss as an act that can be learned is crucial with respect to the poem.

Another important dimension that Bishop gives the poem is in contrast with the first idea: the act of acceptance. This is where readers can see her acting objectively. The art of losing then becomes the art of survival.

What type of poem is “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop?

“One Art” is an autobiographical poem that Elizabeth Bishop wrote as she approached the end of her life. This poem is part of her last book of poetry, Geography III (1976). “One Art” is one of the last poems by Bishop and stands symbolic of the fact that it is an account of certain significant losses that she had to witness. It is written in a tightly structured poetic form called villanelle, which gives her a certain kind of aloofness helping her in understanding her own life.


Similar Poems about Loss

  • Easter” by Jill Alexander Essbaum — This poem is about a speaker who tries to cope with her past losses during Easter.
  • Splendour in the Grass” by William Wordsworth — This philosophical poem part of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode imparts the lesson of moving on with the learnings from one’s past.
  • Love in a Life” by Robert Browning — In this poem, a speaker tries to find the presence of his beloved in their room.
  • I wish I could remember that first day” by Christina Rossetti — This nostalgic poem is about one speaker’s regrets about her past choices.


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