Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art"

Updated on October 6, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Elizabeth Bishop


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.


The speaker claims that it is easy to lose things. Through heavy irony, though, she demonstrates that some things are easier to lose than others. The poem builds on the pretend notion of losing as an art, easier losing to more difficult losing.

Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle titled "One Art" features the traditional five tercets and one one quatrain, with the customary two rimes and two refrains.

The two rimes are "master" and "intent." The poet demonstrates some skillful innovation as she employs "last, or" to rime with "master" in the fourth tercet, and "gesture" to off-rime with "master" in the quatrain.

Metaphorically framing her report as a lesson in losing things, the speaker shows her audience how to lose things easily. Of course, her little drama's true purpose is disguised by irony. She is attempting to mitigate her own feelings of pain and sorrow at the loss of a loved one.

First Tercet: "The art of losing isn't hard to master"

The speaker seems to be establishing a new art as she asserts the losing things is an art that is not difficult to "master." Furthermore, she adds that some things are just begging to be lost anyway.

Because those insignificant things seem intended to be lost, it cannot be a "disaster" to lose them. That alone goes a long way toward making losing things quite easy to learn, and just a little practice will allow one to master that "art."

Second Tercet: "Lose something every day. Accept the fluster"

After establishing how easy losing things can be, the speaker recommends to her listeners/students that they must practice losing things every day. Just as an instructor of poetry writing or portrait painting would advise her students to practice everyday, this speaker also shares that same advise: it's an easy art, practice by losing something every day.

Of course, the speaker is again engaging in irony that sounds almost facetious in its display. By losing something everyday, the loser will become adept at the art. For example, losing keys and then losing the hour spent in trying to find them offers two swift occasions for practice. And although you might have lost an hour along with the keys, neither can be considered a disastrous loss.

Because losing keys and the little hour are simply an annoyance, one must agree that such a loss would be easy to endure and easy "to master."

Third Tercet: "Then practice losing farther, losing faster"

Once one has experienced and practiced the loss of such items as keys, one can move on to experiencing and practicing losing bigger things, such as "places" and "names." You might even add losing the notion of where you had intended "to travel."

All of those items could in theory cause more damage than losing keys, so it is important to include them in one's practice of this art of losing. And as one becomes more and more adept at this art, it will be recognized that their loss as well is not disastrous—again annoying, frustrating, perhaps, but certainly not "a disaster."

Fourth Tercet: "I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or"

Now the speaker/art-instructor offers examples of items she has personally lost: her "mother's watch"—the loss of which surely caused great pain. Losing three houses that she loved no doubt brought on great grief.

But the speaker insists again that with practice this "art of losing" can cause loss to become less and less painful. It is, of course, like any art: practice makes perfect. The speaker continues to stress the importance of practice.

Fifth Tercet: "I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster"

As would be expected in any course of instruction, the focus becomes more and more challenging. The speaker now asserts that including keys and an hour looking for them, names of people and place, precious heirlooms, and dwellings, she has lost cities, rivers, and a whole continent.

Of course, the speaker's assertions are figurative; while she likely did own all of the former items she has lost, she has not possessed cities, rivers, and a continent. But she likely has lost the ability to live in certain cities, lost the ability to return to certain rivers and to that continent.

Still being the artist that she is, she has practiced and practiced, and even losing those very large items cannot be considered disastrous to her. Her practice with great diligence has rendered her capable in this newly created "art."

Quatrain: "—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture"

The quatrain brings all the playfulness of losing things as an art to fruition. The speaker has not been advising students on improving an art at all: she has been assuaging her own pain over a loss that does, in fact, consider a disaster. She has lost a loved one.

This loved one possessed a "joking voice" that she loved. And she misses that personality quirk terribly. To her, this loss is indeed a great disaster.

Even though the speaker keeps up the charade of losing not being "too hard to master," she proves the irony of her claims by having to force herself to write the last line: "though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."

Losing this loved one looks like disaster because it is, and this speaker has endured a great tribulation of pain and suffering as she pretends to create a new art.

Actually, readers will all agree that losing any of those items does cause pain and suffering. But the loss of a loved one definitely causes the most grief.

It is an art that no one will ever master, and the power of the irony employed in this poem is reenforced by that very human condition that the human heart and mind have to endure regardless of the difficulty of the art.

Reading of Bishop's "One Art"

Note on readings by "Tom O'Bedlam"

The voice "Tom O'Bedlam" renders many poems well. But while this voice has a great talent for interpretive reading, the commentary appearing with many of the poems is disastrous, often missing the most important elements of the poems entirely.

Please listen carefully and eagerly to the readings of "Tom O'Bedlam," but pay no attention to the commentaries, or at least be warned to take them with a large lump of salt.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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