Why Did Elizabeth Bishop Write One Art As A Villanelle?

by Amy

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” is a poignant exploration of loss, memory, and the human condition. Written in the form of a villanelle, this structure adds a layer of complexity and depth to the poem’s themes. In this article, we will delve into the reasons behind Bishop’s choice to write “One Art” as a villanelle and explore how this form enhances the poem’s impact on the reader.

Understanding the Villanelle Form

Before delving into Bishop’s motivations, it is essential to understand the villanelle form itself. A villanelle is a highly structured poem consisting of nineteen lines divided into five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza). The key features of a villanelle include:

1. Refrains: The first and third lines of the first tercet are alternately repeated as the last lines of the subsequent tercets and then come together as the final two lines of the quatrain.

2. Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme of a villanelle is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA, where A and B represent different rhymes.

3. Fixed Meter: Villanelles traditionally follow a meter, often iambic pentameter, though variations are possible.

The rigid structure of the villanelle presents a unique challenge to poets, requiring careful craftsmanship and attention to detail. Despite these constraints, the form offers opportunities for creativity and exploration within its boundaries.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

“One Art” is arguably Elizabeth Bishop’s most famous poem, celebrated for its emotional depth and thematic richness. The poem begins with the speaker asserting that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” and goes on to enumerate various losses, ranging from everyday objects to more profound experiences like losing loved ones. Throughout the poem, the refrain “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” serves as a mantra, repeated with increasing desperation as the losses escalate.

Bishop’s choice of the villanelle form for “One Art” is significant and contributes to the poem’s impact in several ways.

1. Structure Mirrors Theme

The structured repetition of the villanelle form mirrors the theme of loss presented in the poem. The repeated lines, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” underscore the idea that loss is a skill that can be learned and perfected. The fixed form of the villanelle reinforces the inevitability and regularity of loss, echoing the relentless passage of time and the cyclical nature of life’s losses.

2. Emphasis on Control and Mastery

The villanelle’s strict structure also highlights the speaker’s attempt to control and master the experience of loss. By repeating the refrain, the speaker seeks to convince both themselves and the reader that they have a handle on the situation, that they can cope with whatever losses come their way. This facade of control gradually crumbles as the poem progresses, exposing the raw emotions and vulnerabilities beneath.

3. Intensified Emotions Through Repetition

The repetitive nature of the villanelle form intensifies the emotions expressed in the poem. Each repetition of the refrain adds to the cumulative effect, building a sense of urgency and despair. The refrain becomes a haunting echo, embodying the relentlessness of loss and the struggle to come to terms with it. This repetition creates a powerful emotional resonance that lingers with the reader long after the poem is finished.

4. Artistry Within Constraints

Bishop’s decision to write “One Art” as a villanelle showcases her skill as a poet who can work within strict formal constraints while maintaining lyrical beauty and emotional depth. The villanelle’s intricate structure requires careful attention to meter, rhyme, and repetition, yet Bishop weaves these elements seamlessly into a cohesive and impactful poem. Her mastery of the form demonstrates the artistry and versatility of poetic expression.

The Influence of Loss in Bishop’s Life

To fully understand why Elizabeth Bishop chose to write “One Art” as a villanelle, it is essential to consider the influence of loss in her own life. Bishop experienced numerous losses throughout her life, including the early death of her father, separation from her mother, and the loss of romantic relationships. These personal experiences undoubtedly informed her exploration of loss in “One Art” and contributed to her choice of the villanelle form.

The villanelle’s repetitive structure reflects the recurring nature of loss in Bishop’s life and underscores the idea that loss is an inevitable part of the human experience. By crafting “One Art” as a villanelle, Bishop not only pays homage to the formal traditions of poetry but also infuses her personal experiences and emotions into a universal artistic expression.


Elizabeth Bishop’s decision to write “One Art” as a villanelle was a deliberate choice that enhances the poem’s thematic depth, emotional impact, and artistic merit. The structured repetition of the villanelle form mirrors the theme of loss and control, intensifying the emotions expressed in the poem. Bishop’s skillful craftsmanship within the constraints of the form highlights her artistry as a poet and adds layers of meaning to “One Art.”

Ultimately, “One Art” stands as a testament to Bishop’s ability to transform personal experiences into universal truths through the power of poetry. By embracing the villanelle form, Bishop creates a timeless work that continues to resonate with readers and poets alike, inviting contemplation on the nature of loss, resilience, and the human condition.


What does “One Art” symbolize by Elizabeth Bishop?

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop symbolizes the inevitability and universality of loss. Through the repeated refrain, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Bishop explores the idea that loss is a skill that can be learned and accepted. The poem’s catalog of losses, from minor to profound, symbolizes the constant flux and impermanence of life. The act of “losing” becomes a metaphor for the human experience itself, with its moments of gain and loss, joy and sorrow.

What is the purpose of “One Art”?

The purpose of “One Art” is to meditate on the theme of loss and resilience. Elizabeth Bishop uses the villanelle form and repetitive structure to convey the gradual unraveling of control in the face of loss. The poem serves as a reflection on the inevitability of loss, the illusion of control, and the human capacity to adapt and endure. Ultimately, “One Art” encourages readers to contemplate the nature of loss, acceptance, and the art of living with impermanence.

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