Caught and Freed: Manipulations of Form in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” and “One Art”

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Caught and Freed: Manipulations of Form in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” and “One Art”


A fascinating aspect of Elizabeth Bishop’s treatment of poetic form is her tendency to subvert it. Perhaps more than any other poet writing in English who came to prominence in the middle of the twentieth century, Bishop was adept at developing and exploiting tensions between form and content, and nowhere is this more the case than in the self-proclaiming “Sonnet” and the villanelle “One Art.”

Bishop wrote two poems called “Sonnet:” one in 1928 when she was a teenager and the other near the end of her life. The earlier, less well-known poem1 begins:

      I am in need of music that would flow
      Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
      Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
      With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.

The poem is, unsurprisingly for the work of a sixteen-year-old, rather thin on content. But there is skill in this child’s writing: note how the last line oozes out in long, “liquid-slow” syllables after the breezy dactyl “melody.” The poem is formally conventional, with a turn between the eighth and ninth lines creating the usual division into octave and sestet, and a rhyme scheme that makes it a fairly standard modification of the traditional Petrarchan sonnet that perhaps owes a debt to the Spenserian, with interlocking but non-identical rhymes in the first two quatrains (Bishop’s poem rhymes ABBAACCA DEFDEF rather than the Petrarchan ABBAABBA CDCDCD). Moreover, this sonnet tackles the traditional subject of a desire for music (the “true concord of well-tuned sounds” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 82), is mostly comprised of regular iambic pentameters, and is highly alliterative (“fretful, feeling finger-tips;” “magic made by melody”). This strict adherence to conventions of theme, form and scansion can, with hindsight, be dismissed as the sign of a young poet, on her way to what would be literary eminence, practising her art.

Don Paterson asserts that, “A great sonnet … will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do,”3 and unlike its predecessor, Bishop’s second “Sonnet” (Bishop 192) does several:

      Caught – the bubble
      in the spirit-level,
      a creature divided;
      and the compass needle
      wobbling and wavering,
      Freed – the broken
      thermometer’s mercury
      running away;
      and the rainbow-bird
      from the narrow bevel
      of the empty mirror,
      flying wherever
      it feels like, gay!

This poem bears little resemblance to any traditional conception of a sonnet aside from the fact that it has fourteen lines. In all other respects it manipulates or simply flouts convention. Lorrie Goldensohn refers to this poem as “a narrow but resonant chamber,”4 and it is “narrow:” both visually and aurally, as it uses a two-stress accentual line; and in terms of its exploration of subjects, for it concentrates on providing brief, concrete examples of things that are “Caught” or “Freed,” with no use of tropes until the last five lines. Furthermore, the turn is not emphasised by a distinct change in rhyme scheme (there are only three pairs of rhymes, one linking ‘octave’ and ‘sestet’ at a distance of nine lines) or by a stanza-break, as is commonly the case. However, the abruptness of a single-word line and the only full stop in the poem does mark a very definite shift in direction, and this turn constitutes a genuine reversal and inversion, both semantically, as a focus on “Caught” transmutes into a concentration on its opposite, and structurally, as this change of subject comes after the sixth line, causing the sestet to precede the octave. Moreover, this sixth line consists of the only negatively prefixed word in the poem, conspicuous against the images of cathartic release in the octave, and the positive and hopeful connotations of “Freed,” “rainbow” and “gay.”

As Bonnie Costello notes in her fine book Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery, “Bishop uses poetic constraints antithetically, to allow for more energy in release.”5 After utilising the sestet and the first three lines of the octave to concentrate at equal metrical length on three objects, the “bubble / in the spirit-level,” “compass needle” and “broken thermometer’s mercury,” the poem’s concluding clause emphasises the freedom of the shard of light through the relative “freedom” afforded by two extra lines of verse. The “rainbow-bird” suggests a solution to entrapment, but is elusive and intangible and stands at metaphorical distance from reality, and it is alluded to in a poem that professes its formal obligations in its title. However, it is fitting that a poem that explores an urge for release should make such oblique use of the poetic form in which its title unequivocally claims that it is written.

The villanelle is traditionally a poem of nineteen lines using only two rhymes, arranged in five tercets and a closing quatrain, its first line repeated as sixth, twelfth and eighteenth, its third line as ninth, fifteenth and last. Unsurprisingly, considering these stipulations, there are very few successful poems of this type. Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” begins thus:

      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 (Bishop 178).

Anne Stevenson has called this poem a “wholly triumphant” example of a villanelle,6 and it certainly makes bold use of the form’s strict stipulations for its own ends. The emphasis on doubling or dichotomy (for example, there is the loss of “two cities” and “two rivers,” and the overbearing loss of a partner, separating two people) is perfectly suited to the two-rhyme structure. Furthermore, as “master” and “disaster” reappear throughout the poem, the attentive reader will be aware by the end of the first stanza that the poem is likely to end in “disaster:” that “disaster” is destined to have, quite literally, the last word. However, as Costello points out, Bishop “organises her villanelle not only to broaden the scope and intensity of loss, but, conversely, to explore the concept of mastery” (Costello 1). It is clear from the first tercet that the closing couplet cannot comprise the conventionally necessary first and third lines, as they would not make grammatical sense together. Bishop’s deviation from tradition to exchange what conventionally would be repeated lines for rhyming ones means both that she bypasses one of the challenges inherent in the villanelle and that it is, as a result, not a true example of the form. The “failure” of the poet to completely “master” the villanelle therefore hints at the speaker’s similar failure to fully master “the art of losing:” a self-conscious failure bound in over-ambition.

The poem’s title implies a similarity or harmony between artistic creation (i.e. writing a poem) and mastering personal loss. Losing is all that one can be certain of, as everything is ultimately transient, and the speaker’s method for dealing with this is to harness it into something potentially therapeutic (and immortalising): a poem. The closing quatrain reads:

      —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.

With the imperative “write it,” the speaker seems to say, “accept it:” compared to the loss of any material possessions, or a scrap of wasted time, or an opportunity to travel the loss of a loved person does “look like … disaster.” The litotes in the penultimate line and the heady enjambment of this verse at the end of a poem of mostly calmly end-stopped lines emphasises faltering conviction. Moreover, as Stevenson argues, “write it,” “asks to be read as ‘right it,’” making “One Art” a poem “begun in despair” that becomes one “about the triumph of poetry” (Stevenson 126). It seems that writing, as both an art form and a mode of self-discovery and expression, provides a modus operandi for the speaker to cope with life’s instability, even if there is no method for truly overcoming it. One thing that can be fully controlled by the artist is her use of a chosen medium, and as in “Sonnet,” with its free-flowing but lethal mercury and flashes of unrestrained iridescence, both emotion and prosody want to break loose but the poet does not let them: she “masters” them. As in “Sonnet,” she uses the restraining characteristics of formal poetry to write verse that is emotionally charged by its own reticence and constraint, and that manages to be both autobiographical and private.




Bishop, Elizabeth. Complete Poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 2004.

Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, ed. John Kerrigan. London: Penguin, 1999.


Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

Paterson, Don. “Introduction.” 101 Sonnets: From Shakespeare to Heaney, ed. Don Paterson. London: Faber, 1999.

Stevenson, Anne. Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop. London: Bellew, 1998.


1 Elizabeth Bishop, Complete Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 2004), 214.

2 William Shakespeare, The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, ed. John Kerrigan (London: Penguin, 1999), 80.

3 Don Paterson, “Introduction,” 101 Sonnets: From Shakespeare to Heaney, ed. Don Paterson (London: Faber, 1999), 10.

4 Lorrie Goldensohn, The Biography of a Poetry (New York: Columbia UP, 1992), 269.

5 Bonnie Costello, Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1991), 241.

6 Anne Stevenson, Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop (London: Bellew, 1998), 125.