Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop

‘The Armadillo’ delves into themes of tradition, death, and destruction, as well as fear and the delicacy of the human condition. The tone is direct, unreserved, and clear, therefore enabling the poet to create a solemn and thoughtful mood. 

The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop


Summary of The Armadillo

‘The Armadillo’ by Elizabeth Bishop describes the beauty and destructive power of fire balloons let off in honour of a saint’s day in “these parts”. 

The poem takes the reader through the previous night’s events. First, the speaker focuses on the beauty of the balloons and how they appear against the night sky. They mimic the stars and the planets. But, when they fall, they’re deadly. Like a cracked egg one fell behind her house. She went out to look at it and noted the terror the fire struck into the surrounding creatures. Owls, armadillos, and rabbits are seen fleeing the woods. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of The Armadillo 

‘The Armadillo’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a ten stanza poem that’s divided into quatrains. The lines follow a structured rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.

There are moments in which the rhyme scheme is not quite perfect, and additionally instances in which Bishop makes use of half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, the long “e” in the words “receding,” “solemnly, “ and “steadily” in stanza five and the use of the constant “t” in the second and third lines of the third stanza. 


Poetic Techniques

Bishop makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Armadillo’. These include alliteration, simile, enjambment and caesura.

The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “frail” and “fire” in line three of the first stanza and “downdraft” and “dangerous” in lines three and four of the fifth stanza. 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There are several examples within ‘The Armadillo’. For instance, the comparison between the fire balloons and hearts in the second stanza. Or, the second line of the sixth stanza that reads “It splattered like an egg of fire”. This is in reference to the crashing of the balloons. 


Caesura and Enjambment

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. The best example can be found in lines three of the ninth stanza. It reads: “So soft!—a handful of intangible ash”

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples to be found throughout ‘The Armadillo,’ such as the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines two and three of the sixth. 


Analysis of The Armadillo 

Stanza One

This is the time of year
Climbing the mountain height,

In the first stanza of ‘The Armadillo,’ the speaker begins by stating simply that it’s the time of year in which “illegal fire balloons appear”. The location is not made clear, nor is the reason why the balloons are let off. (The second line does shed some light on this though.) The speaker refers to these balloons as “illegal”. While at first, it seems strange that this might be the case, as the poem goes on and the second half begins, the reasoning behind their illegality is cleared up, at least somewhat. 

Bishop’s poetry is well-regarded for its ability to take the reader directly into the scene. Her details are precise and at the same time emotive, making the text feel as though it is something she experienced herself. The last line of the stanza starts a sentence describing the way that the balloons climb up into the sky to “mountain height”. This line is very skillfully enjambed, encouraging a reader to move quickly into the second stanza. 


Stanza Two

rising toward a saint
that comes and goes, like hearts.

In the second stanza of ‘The Armadillo,’ the speaker continues describing what happens when the balloons are released into the sky. They rise up “toward a saint”. This provides the reader with a little bit of information about why the balloons are being released in the first place. They’re let go to honour a saint that’s specific to this part of the world (although it’s unclear what place the speaker is thinking about). 

With her characteristic dedication to detail, the poet goes into the mechanics of the balloons. They are made of “paper” and filled with light, “like hearts”. This is a lovely simile that is juxtaposed quite powerfully with the destruction in the second part of the poem. 


Stanza Three

Once up against the sky it’s hard
Venus going down, or Mars,

Now, the balloons are up in the sky and the speaker describes their beauty against the night’s darkness. There is something transcendent and spiritual about this process. The balloons lift into the distance until it’s hard “to tell them from the stars”. They blend in as if they too have been there for thousands of years and will outlive humanity. But, this is not the case. 

There are some, the speaker points out, that makes her think more of the planets. They are tinted as specific planets are. She refers to Venus or Mars. 


Stanza Four

or the pale green one. With a wind,
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

The fourth stanza of ‘The Armadillo’ uses alliteration to describe the way the balloons move in the sky and set themselves apart from the immovable stars. They move, unlike stars, with the wind. The “w” consonant sound is repeated at the beginnings of “wind” and “wobble” in lines one and two. There is also a repetition of the “s” constant sound. This is an example of alliteration as well as sibilance. 

There is a chance that it won’t be windy when they’re released and then they’ll be able to “steer” themselves between the “kite sticks of the southern cross”. The poet uses a metaphor to depict the shape of this constellation. 


Stanza Five

receding, dwindling, solemnly
suddenly turning dangerous.

There is an example of repetition in these lines as the poet lists out adjectives used to describe the way the lanterns move through the sky. They dwindle into the distance, evoking a feeling of solemnity even loneliness. In the second line, she uses personification to describe them as forsaking humankind. They were set off in a gesture of goodwill and good faith and now they’re disappearing as if heartless and uncaring. 

There is a turn in the third and fourth lines of this stanza of ‘The Armadillo’. Now, the speaker reorients her description away from the beauty of these released fire balloons to the reasons they were made illegal in the first place. They have the ability to suddenly turn “dangerous”. 


Stanza Six

Last night another big one fell.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

In the sixth stanza of ‘The Armadillo,’ the speaker makes the poem contemporary by saying that “Last night,” one of these balloons, a “big one,” fell to the earth. Using a simile, she compares its crash landing to a shattering egg on fire. It hit into a “cliff behind the house”. The use of the word ‘the” here alludes to the fact that this was not just a random house or a generalized house. It appears that it is her own, a place where she lived with someone else. At that moment the speaker recalls running outside and watching the flames. Like a cracked egg, the flame ran down the side of the cliff, posing a distinct danger to not only the houses but to the other life in the surrounding woods.


Stanza Seven

of owls who nest there flying up
they shrieked up out of sight.

The speaker and the person with whom she was sharing the house went outside and saw the animals fleeing from the fires that broke out. There were the “owls” who were made, like the balloons, to fly up and out of their nests. They appeared to her as “black-and-white” shapes that were “bright pink” from the flames “underneath”. This is a scary and traumatizing image, made even more striking by the audible “shriek[ing]” that accompanied their progression into the sky. 


Stanza Eight

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

She continues to speak on the owls while looking back in time. She considers the history of the woods and what been destroyed. Their nests were “ancient” and were destroyed by a whim of humanity to send balloons of fire into the air. 

In addition to the owls, there are other creatures that were impacted by the fires. Most importantly, the armadillo. It was “rose-flecked” with fire and “glistening” in the light. It left the scene with its tail and head down moving as quickly as it could.


Stanza Nine

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
with fixed, ignited eyes.

The armadillo, and its armoured skin, is contrasted with the “baby rabbit” in the ninth stanza. It “jumped out” and surprised the onlookers. It was “short-eared” and even in that moment of terror struck them as being “So soft!”. This was due less to its fur than to the ash that was collecting on its body. Its eyes, she adds, were “ignited”. 


Stanza Ten 

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
clenched ignorant against the sky!

The last four lines are less representative and more philosophical. They address the larger themes of fear, death, dreams, and human-caused destruction. She addresses the imagery of that night as “Too pretty” and “dreamlike”. The speaker also references the mimicry that these dangerous balloons were part of as they were compared to the stars and then their destructive power. The final image is of a “clenched ignorant” fist trust up “against the sky”. It is at once “weak” and “mailed,” or covered in armour. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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