A Poem and A Painting: The Art of Losing

by milk and honey beauty

Hey Lobsterites!

I thought it might be fun and interesting to start a little series where I pair amazing poems with equally amazing artworks that (to my mind) illustrate, clarify, or expand upon a theme from the poem. Today’s pairing is about loss, and how and why we might lose someone. First, the poem. It is the incredible “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop. This is probably my favorite poem of all time, which is why I chose it for this first ‘pairing’ experiment…

 

One Art

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.

—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.

 

What I love about this poem is the pay-off at the end. The moment when we realize that losing her loved one IS a momentous disaster, despite the author’s attempts to kid herself that it’s not-  that it’s akin to losing ‘things.’ We learn simultaneously how much she loves him: more than her memories of people and places; more than her ‘cities’ and ‘realms,’ which makes the loss seem even more staggering. And then the incredibly self-deprecating refrain, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” which reminds us with a kind of savagery that we should never take what we have for granted, and that the ‘losing’ of it is our own fault. The whole poem is a downward spiral as well, from the mundane and trivial annoyance of losing keys, to the grief of losing a loved one. It’s a masterclass in poetry.

Now to the artwork. Despite my alliterative blog post title, this isn’t a painting, but a sculpture! I chose Bernini’s exquisite “Apollo and Daphne” (1622-25) which I find almost impossible to view without a tear welling up. Some backstory: Apollo was in love with the beautiful nymph, Daphne, but she was a proto-feminist, and wouldn’t succumb to his (or any man’s) advances, preferring to spend her time rambling in the woods. When Apollo (with some help from Eros) finally catches her, Daphne pleaded with her father, Peneus  to save her, which he does: by turning her into a tree.

This story had been told in art many times before, but never with the sense of horror  that Bernini manages to convey. This is, to all intents and purposes, a rape about to happen. A double-horror stems from Daphne’s shock as her hands begin to morph into leaves.

Despite its underlying violence, Bernini doesn’t want us to think of Apollo as a monster. When you look at Apollo’s face close-up it is full of sadness, shock, and a sense of loss. And there is sadness too in the fact that where his hand finally touches the object of his desires, she has already turned into tree-bark. Daphne is a metaphor not just for Apollo having to face the consequences of loving ‘too much,’ but for the ‘art of losing’ in general. We lose, both Bishop and Bernini say, through an excess of wanting and striving, and an inability to accept the inevitability of loss. Bernini says it loudly and plainly; Bishop coyly and ironically, but the message is the same: we must let go of what we cannot have or risk losing not just a person dear to us, but ourselves as well.

apollo and daphne

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