The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

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...

(The entire section contains 1246 words.)

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