“One Art” Summary

One Art” is a villanelle written by American poet Elizabeth Bishop and originally published in 1976.

  • Describing losing as an art that can be easily mastered, the poem’s speaker lists various things that can be lost without “disaster,” including keys, hours, names, and places.
  • The speaker then describes more significant things she has lost, such as her mother’s watch and three houses, as well as more symbolic things, such as cities and a continent.
  • In the final stanza, the speaker directly addresses a loved one, forcing herself to write that even losing this beloved person wouldn’t be disastrous.


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Last Updated September 6, 2023.


"One Art" is a villanelle (a nineteen-line poem comprising five tercets and a quatrain) written by Elizabeth Bishop and first published in 1976. Frequently included in collections of women's and lesbian poetry, the poem is believed to be primarily about Bishop's fear of losing her domestic partner, Alice Methfessel. An alcoholic, Bishop—who was sixty-five at the time of writing this piece—frequently expressed her regrets about how her addiction affected her life through the medium of her poetry.


In the opening tercet, or three-line stanza, of the poem, the speaker begins by declaring that it is not difficult to master "the art of losing." She does not specify, at this point, whether she means losing competitions, things, or people, but she observes that many things in life are seemingly meant to be lost. Because that "intent" is already there, it does not, therefore, seem like "disaster" to lose these things.

In the second tercet, the speaker issues what appear to be a series of instructions for mastering the so-called "art of losing." She suggests that it is something one can practice, by losing something "every day." She goes on to suggest that, although losing things causes us to feel a "fluster," we must simply "accept" this. We may lose our door keys, or we may lose an hour because we have not used it well, but these are things which we can simply resign ourselves to. The final line of this tercet is an echo of the opening line of the first and underscores the speaker's point: "The art of losing isn't hard to master." Having just outlined some simple steps for "mastering" losing in the second tercet, the speaker now reiterates her point that this is not an impossible thing to learn.

The third tercet continues to play with this idea of losing as an "art" which can be learned, with Bishop suggesting that one should now begin to practice "losing farther, losing faster." She then offers some illustrations of things one could lose at this more advanced level: names, places, and "where it was you meant / to travel." These are more significant things to lose than door keys or an hour of one's day, but still, the speaker repeats, none of these things will actually cause "disaster" if they are lost.

In the next tercet, Bishop's speaker offers some examples of some of the larger things that she, as a master of the art of losing, has lost. The first is her mother's watch, obviously an item of particular significance. Next, she invites the reader to "look!" at the house, the last "or next-to-last" of three much loved ones, which she has lost. She reiterates once again that it is not difficult to master the art of losing, as these two significant losses indicate.

The following tercet builds upon the fourth one to describe some far "vaster" things the speaker has lost. These seem to be metaphorical losses: the speaker describes how she has lost two "lovely" cities and also some "realms" which had belonged to her. She has also lost "two rivers, a continent," but, she claims, this has not been a "disaster" to her. She may miss these things, but because she is so adept at the art of losing, their loss is not disastrous.

The final stanza of the poem, in keeping with the villanelle form, is a quatrain. Throughout the poem, the losses have been cumulatively becoming more significant: now, the speaker talks about "losing you" and suggests that even if this happens, "I shan't have lied"—that is, it will still not have been difficult to cope with. Again, the speaker reiterates that the art of losing is not difficult to learn. However, the parenthetical instruction "(Write it!)," which seems to be addressed to the poet herself, suggests that these words are more easily written than believed. Although it may seem like a disaster, the poet is telling herself, it isn't one—but the parenthetical comment questions the truth of this.

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