Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Two images dominate “The Armadillo”: the fire balloons and animals that have been brushed by the fire. Together they create a tension that is brought into harmony, if not exactly resolved, in the last quatrain. Despite the beauty of the balloons, in the end the speaker calls them (or perhaps her description of them ) “too pretty” and their mimicry “dreamlike” as if rejecting the poem’s initial images. Instead the poem concludes with references to the owls’ “piercing cry,” the rabbit’s panic, and the armadillo itself, weak in its armor, like a “weak mailed fist/ clenched ignorant against the sky!” The impulse to romanticize the picture is revealed in its falsity in the face of the animals’ fright.

The rejection of romantic gloss in favor of the hard data of concrete reality is a common theme in Bishop’s work, as one can see in “The Fish” or “First Death in Nova Scotia.” It is not surprising that Bishop has chosen the armadillo as the title image for the poem. Unlike the innately appealing baby rabbit or the owl with its freight of myth (it is traditionally an emblem of wisdom connected with the goddess Athena), the armadillo is simply an ungainly animal in fallible armor, neither wise nor cuddly. As a “mailed fist” it is nevertheless weak and ignorant in the face of the sky that has so unexpectedly attacked it.

The last quatrain invites the reader to reconsider the opening images of the poem. The very saint in whose devotion the balloons are launched seems remote; “still honored in these parts” suggests that the saint is no longer honored in most places. Nor do the balloons, frail chambers that “flare and falter, wobble and toss” offer any clear honor to the saint as they forsake us. Instead they are linked to unsteady hearts and to planets associated not only with love but also with warfare and the rather unsaintly power of Jove. Better, the poem suggests, to fix one’s attention on the owl, the rabbit, and the armadillo, to reject the dreamlike mimicry and see them as they flee the burning cliff, soft now like ashes, with eyes ignited like coals.