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The apparent detached simplicity of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is undermined by its rigorous villanelle structure and increasing emotional tension. It is arguably her most well-known poem, focusing on the subject of loss and the speaker’s – and the reader’s – response to it. In this passage, Bishop turns losing into an art form and considers how, if we can master it, we might become detached from the grief of loss. Elizabeth Bishop’s father passed away when she was just eight months old, her mother later died of a mental condition, and she eventually lost her lover to suicide. We could therefore consider this poem to be partially autobiographical. In it, the poet lists several things we might lose in life in order of increasing importance, with the loss of a loved one serving as the list’s ultimate resolution.
About the poet
Elizabeth Bishop, a poet, was born in 1911 and had a turbulent upbringing due to the loss of her father when she was just a baby and her mother’s subsequent mental health issues, which led to her being committed at the age of five. She never again saw her mother. She spent a lot of her childhood moving about as a result, before her paternal grandparents enrolled her in an exclusive school. She traveled extensively after earning her degree from Vassar College; sceneries from these travels are depicted in her poetry. She also spent some time in Brazil. She lived with her female partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, in Petrópolis, where she was observed by the townspeople. After Soares committed suicide in 1967, Bishop moved back to the US and started teaching at Harvard. She was awarded both the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize.
The poem’s main themes—losing, acceptance, and sadness—are infused with strong language and other literary devices. Losing something or someone need not spell doom, according to the poet. She uses examples from her losses to illustrate her point that learning to lose can help us overcome difficult circumstances and find happiness.
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.
Throughout “One Art,” the initial line or refrain is repeated without alteration. A semicolon at the conclusion denotes a kind of pause. This was a conscious choice on the poet’s part that gives the tone a sense of assurance and eliminates any possibility of doubt. This article asserts that “mastering” the art of losing is simple. The second line contains an enjambment at the word “purpose,” which causes the literary persona’s initial assurance to jolt. This implies that some objects are “bent” on being lost. They seem to wish to be lost (personification), but there is no “disaster” at all. Every time the second refrain concludes, the word “disaster” appears. Bishop changed the original language of this refrain, taking some artistic license.
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 second stanza’s opening line reads like a command. It claims that losing something happens frequently. Through her tone, the speaker instructs listeners to practice. The sentence’s briefness and abruptness imply that she doesn’t have the patience to go into great depth. She can be understood by those who have already felt the anxiety of misplacing door keys or wasting an hour.
The “key” is a tangible object, whereas the “hour” that was wasted is an abstract concept, hence the two situations presented are fundamentally different. However, the argument that they are both insignificant and small objects, making their loss less significant, continues. She reiterates in the final paragraph that it shouldn’t be too difficult to learn the art of losing.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
Another command is given to begin the third stanza. The speaker tries to educate the audience on the nuances of this skill and how it should be practiced, including “losing farther” and “losing faster.” The word “losing” is used often, which suggests a sense of urgency in the poetry. As she recalls more of her losses, the speaker seems to be conveying a sense of urgency. When compared to the items described here, the loss of a set of keys or an hour is trivial.
The speaker begins to describe the losses that affect the mind in line eight. These cannot be touched. She mentions losing “names” and “places,” which refers to memories being lost. She reassures readers in the ninth line that even losing things like those memories and the resulting emotions won’t “bring calamity.” It won’t be a very important issue.
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.
This tercet’s opening line signals an abrupt change from the third-person perspective to the first-person, intimate voice. The poet’s voice had previously appeared to be authoritative, issuing commands and providing instructions, but the change in point of view indicates that she is now speaking to herself rather than the audience. She makes allusions to her losses using her voice, such as the loss of her “mother’s watch,” a representation of a strained mother-daughter relationship. She then shouts, “And look!” to draw readers’ attention to the fact that she has lost “three loved houses.” She reiterates the initial refrain—that losing is not that difficult to master—after describing these strands of losses. The lyrical persona’s attempt at neutrality up until this point sounds a little impassioned.
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 beginning of the fifth tercet makes a statement about how much she has lost. It is more significant and intricate than losing the “houses” or her mother’s watch. She lost two “cities,” and not just any cities, but “beautiful” ones. When she adds “And, vaster,” there is a sense of caution since her losses do not stop here. They extend past the realms, rivers, and the continent she owns. Of course, it is practically impossible to lose such items, therefore perhaps an emotional loss that is more representative of the whole attitude is represented by such losses. It seems almost exaggerated given the size of the losses.
The concluding phrases imply a break in the stream of reasoning and a flawless ricocheting between apathy and sadness. When she adds, “I miss them,” she shows her sorrow, but very immediately the comma splits the sentence, causing her to split her thoughts as she repeats, “but it wasn’t a disaster.” Her mind is divided into two halves, one of which wants to sorrow and the other to reject it.
—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 first letter of the last quatrain’s opening line, “emdash,” alludes to the speaker pausing before continuing. The strength of the losses she had to chew increased after the first five tercets. She can take a pause thanks to the emdash before she gains some level of confidence in what she has to say. This “you,” whom she addresses in parenthesis, is the last loss she lists. The parenthesis allows her to look back and say that the things she misses most about this person are their “joking voice” and their “gestures.” She thinks back on “One Art’s” significant and lone addressee.
She continues by stating that her first assertion about how simple it is to lose is true in the following sentence. Most of it is “obvious.” Both refrains are repeated towards the poem’s conclusion: first, the claim that a loss is not difficult to “master,” and second, the promise that a loss is not a “disaster.” The other parenthesis she uses before she ultimately closes the poem, though, leaves a gap in the last line. She commands herself inside, “Write it!” as though pleading with herself to complete the thought. This alludes to her struggle and her suppression of emotion. It suggests that she was always lecturing just herself throughout the poem.