The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo” consists of ten rhymed quatrains in which the speaker describes the fire balloons that some devout persons release at night to celebrate a local saint, presumably in Brazil. The poem begins by describing the balloons; they are illegal, probably because they are dangerous, but they are also seductively beautiful as they rise into the night sky. Indeed, they often resemble planets as they float into the distance on air currents. The pulse of their emitted light resembles a heart’s beating. Nevertheless, the speaker asserts, they can become “suddenlydangerous” if the currents lead them in the wrong direction, and the second half of the poem describes the dangers the balloons can cause.

The speaker describes what happens when a fire balloon crashes into a cliff behind the house and spatters fire like an egg down the cliff side, disrupting the animal life there. The pair of owls which roost in the cliff fly away shrieking, their bodies colored by the flames. Next an armadillo scuttles off, and at last a baby rabbit emerges, looking soft and defenseless and almost as if it has been ignited.

Concrete imagery and a sense of immediacy are common characteristics of Bishop’s poetry; they suggest that she herself experienced the things she describes. The result of this groundedness is to give an authenticity to the significance Bishop attaches to her subjects. It also allows her to indicate that...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Much of Bishop’s work demonstrates her fondness for form, but although she often uses forms she rarely uses them strictly. She does not favor precise metrical patterns (such as highly regular iambic pentameter), and her rhyme is often muted. In “The Armadillo,” stanzas are composed of four lines each, most of them rhyming abcb. Rarely, the first and third lines use an off-rhyme (wind/between, saint/light). The lines are roughly iambic tetrameter but there are several exceptions, particularly in the form of short lines of five or six syllables. The stanzas that describe the armadillo and rabbit have several lines of more than eight syllables. Moreover, at several key points in the poem Bishop works directly against the subtle iambic pattern of unstressed syllable followed by stressed. The description of the armadillo—“rose-flecked, head down, tail down”—illustrates that variation, as does the description of the rabbit: “So soft!—a handful of intangible ash.”

Typical of Bishop, the persona speaks as an observer of the events that form the poem’s substance, beginning with the authoritative “this is the time of year” in which one may see the fire balloons, commenting on their illegality and their appearance in the sky, and moving at last from these general observations to the more specific recording of the events that occurred on the previous night. Only in the last stanza (significantly, it is italicized) does the...

(The entire section is 580 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.