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 significance obliquely instead of relying on direct editorial statement. In her well-known poem “The Fish,” Bishop spends almost all the poem offering details that document the heroic weight carried by the old fish that the speaker has caught, so that at the poem’s end the reader knows why the speaker can claim that victory fills the rowboat and why the speaker releases the fish although he or she never explains these things directly.
Similarly in “The Armadillo,” Bishop devotes most of the poem to describing first the fire balloons, then the results of balloon accidents, and last the creatures routed by the falling fire. Only in the last quatrain does she directly tie together the beauty and terror the balloons inspire and the contrast between their dangerous appeal and the disrupted lives of creatures who cannot possibly understand the balloons’ significance. The “dreamlike mimicry” of the balloons, she says, is “too pretty,” leading the reader to consider what exactly the balloons mimic. Are they suggestive of candles lit in the saint’s honor, or do they evoke martyrdom, perhaps the suffering of the saint being honored or of the innocent animals whose lives are suddenly threatened by fire? In “The Fish,” the language allows the reader to conclude that the victory that fills the boat may belong either to the fish or to the speaker, or, more likely, to both. Here too, the picture of the fire in the night sky is linked to beauty, sentimentality (“too pretty”), and terror.
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...
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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 poem move from what seems to be specific recollections to a commentary on their meaning.
Much of Bishop’s language describing the balloons moves carefully between objective detail and language that suggests the details’ metaphoric significance. The balloons seem to be impermanent; they are “frail” but “illegal”; the light they contain is intermittent and “comes and goes, like hearts,” as if hearts themselves are not to be trusted to carry on their beat. Aloft in the night sky, the balloons resemble planets; Bishop names Mars (the Roman god of war) and Venus (the Roman goddess of love). The planet that Bishop calls “the pale green one” seems to be Jupiter, the largest of the planets, named for Jove, the head of all the Roman gods. The three planets are suggestive of the balloons’ ambiguous meanings of love, violence, and power. In any event, when all is well, the balloons seem to steer into the Southern Cross, the guiding constellation in the Southern Hemisphere; from that course they are “steadily forsaking us.”
The balloons become dangerous only when downdrafts cause them to crash. Bishop’s description of one crash leads to the second simile in the poem—the balloon “spattered like an egg of fire” against a cliff; a stream of flame ran down the cliff, burning an owl’s nest and frightening an armadillo and a baby rabbit. Bishop’s imagery for these animals suggests their anguish in the blaze. The owls are “stained bright pink underneath” from the color of the flames below, and they shriek as they fly away. The armadillo, too, has taken on rose colored flecks, either of actual fire coals or of their color; it scuttles away in a defensive, head-down posture. The baby rabbit’s soft fur seems to be “a handful of intangible ash,” and the rabbit has “fixed, ignited eyes” either from its terror or from its actually being burned. The fiery language attached to each of these victims leaves their state ambiguous. Have they actually been burned, or are they merely reflecting the fire’s glare?
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