‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a poem of desperation and loss. She deals with the themes of reassurance of self, relationships and denial of emotions. The poem describes the loss, not as a process but as an art form that ‘isn’t hard to master’. She tries to convince herself that losing something is ‘no disaster’ and everyday domestic occurrence, such as ‘lost door keys’ or wasting time. However, she finds that the loss of a loving relationship is tough to deal with, and she denies her feelings.
The structure of this poem is a Villanelle. There are five stanzas of three lines each, followed by a stanza of four lines. The master couplet is the first and last lines of the first stanza. These two lines are repeated several times throughout the poem to emphasise the themes of losing and self-mastery of emotions. The form of a Villanelle also allows the central themes of the poems to be highlighted. This fixed form also reflects the speaker’s need to control and restrict her feelings from the devastation of the loss of her relationship.
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The line ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ is repeated four times. Repetition functions as a principle of the speaker’s craft, writing. Because this is a poem of self-assurance, the principle is that if the writer writes it enough, she will start to believe in what she is writing. The purpose of the repetitions is to underscore the theme of self-mastery of emotions. It also emphasises that losing a relationship is not the end of the world, and life will continue as it had previously.
As the poem progresses, the severity of the losses grow. It starts with losing ‘door keys’ and ‘an hour’. By the third stanza, the speaker is losing more personal things; ‘places, and names, and where it was, you meant to travel.’ In the fourth stanza, she loses her “mother’s watch”. This is an artefact of sentimental value. She then loses ‘three loved homes’. Her choice of words here was prudent in that the word ‘home’ was used rather than ‘house’. A house is just a building, but the word ‘home’ has warm and loving connotations.
In the fifth stanza, she then ‘lost two cities’, ‘realms’ and even ‘a continent’. We see how the speaker has established a relationship with these places but has to leave. Desperation also begins to creep into the self-reassurance at this point. From the least important to the most significant losses, losing a relationship is the most severe type of loss. The speaker tries to rationalize the events using a hierarchy to diminish the impact of the loss of a relationship.
The use of punctuation greatly varies the pace and mood of the poem. After the first line, a semicolon was used, which shows that the speaker will create a list of objects that she had lost already. In the first stanza, the lack of punctuation, often known as enjambment, quickens the pace and increases tension and passion. In the fourth stanza, the exclamation mark used in ‘And look!’ shows an intense expression of emotions. It has a cathartic effect on the readers. The second exclamation mark has an alternate effect.
Instead of releasing emotions, she is using ‘(Write it!)’ as a way of forcing herself to use her craft to control her emotions. She is using writing as an art form to express something important in her life. It is almost as if she can write it; then, she will have the willpower to exercise it and believe it is really ‘no disaster’. ‘One Art’ may seem to be a straightforward poem, but it has a deeper meaning. The poet makes an agonised attempt to convince herself that the end of a relationship is not a big issue. However, after reading this poem, the sympathy and empathy felt for the poet’s situation is absolute.
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