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Analysis of Poem 'One Art' by Elizabeth Bishop

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

A poem about lost things

A poem about lost things

'One Art' Elizabeth Bishop Analysis

Elizabeth Bishop's poem One Art is in the form of a villanelle, a traditional, repetitive kind of poem of nineteen lines. In it, she meditates on the art of losing, building up a small catalogue of losses which includes house keys and a mother's watch, before climaxing in the loss of houses, land and a loved one.

It is a part-autobiographical poem and mirrors the actual losses Elizabeth Bishop experienced during her lifetime.

Her father, for instance, died when she was a baby, and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown some years later. The young poet had to live with her relatives and never saw her mother again. In her mature years, she lost her partner to suicide.

'One Art' carefully if casually records these events, beginning innocently enough with an ironic play on 'the art', before moving on to more serious losses. It culminates in the personal loss of a loved one, and the admission that, yes, this may look like a disaster.

'One Art'

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.

Overview of the Poem

'One Art' is a villanelle, that is, it consists of five tercets rhyming aba and a quatrain of abaa. Traditionally the villanelle is in iambic pentameter, each line having five stresses or beats and an average of ten syllables.

So the first line scans:

  • The art / of los / ing is / n't hard / to master;

with notable unstressed endings to most lines. The second line of each stanza solidifies the whole with full end rhyme.

  • The opening line is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercets. The third line of the initial tercet is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth tercets. The opening line and the third line together become the refrain which is repeated in the last two lines of the quatrain.

Elizabeth Bishop slightly modified the lines but minor changes are allowed within the basic villanelle. The idea is to create a sort of dance of words, repeating certain lines whilst building up variations on a theme, all within the tight-knit form.

Note the use of enjambment, carrying the sense of a line on into the next without punctuation, which occurs in the first four stanzas, bringing a smooth if considered energy into the poem.

The fifth stanza is different. It has punctuation, a comma and two periods (end stops), causing the reader to pause as if the speaker is hesitant.

The last stanza is fully enjambed, each line flowing into the next, despite the unexpected use of parentheses.

Further Analysis of One Art Stanza By Stanza

This is a crafted poem with simple language and mostly full end rhymes such as master/disaster, fluster/master, last or/master, gesture/master/disaster. There is the occasional half-rhyme.

As you read through, note the almost conversational, tongue-in-cheek tone, with some irony to spice it up. It's as if the poet initially is reminding herself of just what it means to lose something; it's no big deal we're told, certainly not a disaster?

First Stanza

The speaker chooses to turn the idea of loss into an art form and tries to convince the reader (and herself) that certain things inherently want to be lost and that, when they do get lost, it's nothing to cry about because it was bound to happen in the first place. This is a fateful approach, gracefully accepted by the speaker.

Second Stanza

Following on in a logical fashion, if fate dictates and things want to get lost, then why not lose something on a daily basis? Seems a tad wacky, an offbeat statement. Who wants to lose a thing and then not get emotional about it? Each and every day?

The speaker is suggesting that things, keys, and even time equate to the same thing - they're capable of being lost, absent from your life for no other reason other than they are. Some people are better at it than others. The absent-minded perhaps? Those individuals who are in some way fated, who have a talent for losing things.

So far, so impersonal. Emotion is being held in as the poem builds; the reader is being reminded that losing control within the poem's tight form is not possible - but you are allowed to get in a fluster (agitated, confused).

Third Stanza

Now the reader is being told to consciously lose something, to practice the art. Irony sets in, as does the idea that the mind is a central focus here, for what we're told to lose is abstract - places and names, perhaps on a personal map. Time is being squeezed too as life gets busier and our minds become full and stretched. But in the end, we can handle the losses, no problem.

Fourth Stanza

Again, the emphasis is on time, specifically family time, with the mother's watch being lost, surely symbolic of a profound personal experience for the poet. And note that the speaker is in the here and now when the words And look! appear in the first line, telling the reader that three loved houses went. Went where? We're not sure, we only know they were definitely lost, never having been called home.

Fifth Stanza

The build-up continues. Emotional tension is still not apparent as the reader is now confronted with the speaker's loss of not only the cities where they used to live but the whole continent. This seems drastic. To go from a set of house keys to a whopping continent is absurd - how much more can the speaker endure? Disaster still hasn't happened, but she does miss what she had and possibly took for granted.

Sixth Stanza

The opening dash in the final stanza gives it the feel of almost an afterthought. And the use of adverbs, even and too in connection with a loved one, reveals something quite painfully rational. The personal gives way to the impersonal, the form dictating, despite the last attempt (Write it!) to avoid admission.

In conclusion, there is always the possibility of disaster when we lose something but life teaches us that more often than not, we come out of certain precarious situations with a smile, a cool detachment, the benefit of hindsight.

The poet infers we might become masters of the art of losing and in so doing, find ourselves?


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey