“One Art” is a powerful poem written in the Villanelle style. Though at first glance it appears to be devoid of feeling, Elizabeth Bishop carefully orchestrates a gradual buildup of emotions – most prominently grief and regret – which climaxes and appears most obvious at the conclusion of the poem.
The title appears to divert the reader from the actual content of the poem, as the reader is led to assume that it revolves around actual art. It is the first sentence that declares that the poem concerns the art of losing.
The first stanza is generally witty, as Bishop reveals that some things are “filled with the intent to be lost”. The word “intent” is employed to describe these objects initially appears to herald a largely mischievous and lighthearted poem. However, while the tone of this first stanza is optimistic, Bishop’s unnecessary use of “disaster” forecasts a slightly ominous tone.Order now
Though the content of the following three stanzas is mostly controlled and impersonal, Bishop unintentionally releases some of her emotions in the process. In the third stanza Bishop changes the format of the Villanelle, altering the final line. This suggests to the reader that while “None of these will bring disaster”, other events or objects lost will bring disaster.
This release of emotion is much more obvious in the fifth stanza. The line “I lost two cities, lovely ones” suggests a sense of regret and reminiscence. Bishop once again changes her final line, this time reading to “But it wasn’t a disaster”. Bishop’s unnecessary use of “but” hints to the reader that she is actually unsure on whether or not it was disastrous.
Bishop’s facade cracks in the last stanza despite her best efforts to preserve her professional tone. The reader is finally faced with the object of her focus – a love she has lost. A dash at the very first line appears to represent Bishop pausing for a moment, hesitating on whether or not she should move on with the poem. As she progresses through her description of her lost love, she places “the joking voice, a gesture I love” in brackets which once again may represent a sense of reminiscence and lamentation.
Most interesting is Bishop’s use of the phrase “shan’t have lied”. This phrase is both impersonal yet personal. The archaic and stiff use of “shan’t” reasserts her control over the poem and firmly states that she is convinced that it is not a disaster, and yet at the same time alludes to the reader that she is actually lying. Her final phrase of “(write it!)” denotes an excruciating battle between her willpower and her emotions as she literally forces herself suppress her grief.
Bishop’s intentional use of the Villanelle gives her more control over the format of the poem. The Villanelle’s informality and inflexible framework allows her to repress her emotions more easily.
Yet as her emotions are not confronted, they appear to escape in small fragments and become obvious to the reader as the poem progresses. These restrained feeling will in fact become even more meaningful to the reader than openly expressing them, as it expresses that Bishop not only suffers from intense grief, but is also fighting to keep it under control. It is thus that the reader is not only confronted Bishop’s feelings, but also feels empathy for her as she struggles with them.