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...

(The entire section is 490 words.)