The Armadillo | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop

 The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop is an eye-opening poem about the actions of mankind and the disastrous consequences of those actions on unsuspecting fellow creatures. Dealing with the themes of beauty and cruelty, the destruction of nature by man, the concept of power and the consequence of its abuse, Armadillo may be viewed as an ecocritical writing that interrogates the idea of supposed human superiority and explores the eternal destruction of a host of life forms on Earth due to the actions that seek to provide ephemeral delight of a single species. It may also be read as a commentary on the nature of war and the universality of suffering that victims go through, a suffering that is felt by all the innocent victims, suffering that cuts across the borders of race, nation, and indeed, that of species.    

The Armadillo is based on a street carnival held presumably in Rio, Brazil and was published in the collection of poetry “The Complete Poems: 1927-1979”. The poem progresses from the delightful wonder of the sky lanterns to the terrible destruction they cause when they descend. We see the poet recollect the events of a night when she witnessed a disastrous scene. At first, we see the picturesque beauty of the fire balloons as they assemble the stars in the night sky but then the tune of the poem changes as they cause a catastrophe when they crack open like an “egg of fire”. The forest catches fire and as the poet goes outside her house she sees frightened owls, armadillos and rabbits fleeing to save their lives from the fire. A sight of immense beauty soon gives way to a scenario of unimaginable horror, thus questioning the value of aesthetic delight. The poem consists of ten stanzas, is written in quatrains and the lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB which doesn’t maintain absolute consistency. 

The Armadillo | Summary and Analysis

 The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 1

“This is the time of year

when almost every night

the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.

Climbing the mountain height,”

 Right from the start, the poet takes us to the scene with her precise description of what appears before her. An annual tradition is taking place where the fire balloons appear in the sky again. There is a carnival and people are lighting up sky lanterns in celebration. The lanterns are given a sympathetic treatment in the opening stanza of the poem as they are described as “frail” balloons “climbing the mountain height”, thus granting the requisite sympathy to the balloons that the onlookers and people celebrating attributed to them. The balloons climb up to the “mountain height” flying very high above the ground. However, one must also note that balloons are “illegal”, thus betraying the sequence of events that are to unfold later in the poem. It is Bishop’s remarkable sense of diction that allows her to foreshadow an entire sequence of events through the use of a single word.  Enjambment is used in the last line, the sentence doesn’t end but pours into the second stanza, thus mimicking the sustained, uninterrupted rise of the fir balloons in the evening sky. 

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 2

“rising toward a saint

still honored in these parts,

the paper chambers flush and fill with light

that comes and goes, like hearts.”

 The last line from the first stanza continues in the second stanza and here we find out the reason behind the lighting up of the balloons. They are lit up to celebrate “a saint” and they float towards the saint who is “still honored” in that part of the country. Although it is not mentioned explicitly, the poem seems to explore the happenings of a festival in Brazil. We learn that these balloons are made up of paper and the light inside them flickers like “hearts”, the poet uses a simile in this line. The balloons capture the hearts of the people watching them as they move along the rhythm of their heartbeat. The use of the words “chambers” and “comes and goes” in the third and fourth lines of this stanza make the likeness of the lanterns to the heart of people watching them even more explicit. This is further emphasised by the alliteration flush and fill” thereby comparing the flickering of light in the “paper chambers” with the rush of blood to the heart.

 The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 3

“Once up against the sky it’s hard

to tell them from the stars—

planets, that is—the tinted ones:

Venus going down, or Mars,”

 This stanza describes how beautiful the balloons appear against the sky. In the darkness of the night sky, these balloons blend in with the shining stars and look like stars or tinted planets like Venus or Mars. These paper balloons with fire inside them have a celestial aura that’s enchanting. The theme of ephemerality and eternity is brought out in this stanza where the lanterns are juxtaposed with the stars and planets that light up the firmament with their magnificent splendour. While the lanterns may be indistinguishable from the stars and planets, the similarity is superficial and short-lived. The lanterns remain suspended in the sky only temporarily and come crashing down as compared to the stars that have remained there for eons. The theme of the temporary nature of man and his endeavours, as opposed to the permanence of Nature, is also seen in this stanza.   

The reference to Venus and Mars that the lanterns seem to resemble is of great significance as they not only refer to planetary entities but also mythological ones and the values that they stand for. In Greek mythology, Venus is the Goddess of Beauty. The beautiful lanterns that rise to the sky provide an aesthetic delight to the onlookers and see to cater to their collective need of creating and celebrating beauty. However, the rise of these lanterns – these objects of beauty- soon gives way to their disastrous descent. Beauty, after all, is ephemeral in nature. The reference to Venus makes way for that of Mars – the Roman God of war. The wrath of Mars, as the lanterns fall to the ground, raining death and destruction for different unsuspecting life forms, is seen in the later stanzas. 

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 4

“or the pale green one. With a wind,

they flare and falter, wobble and toss;

but if it’s still they steer between

the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,”

 Unlike the stars these balloons are in motion, they “wobble and toss” in the wind. Like all things created by man, they are unsteady, unstable and susceptible to the slightest wafts of wind. Alliteration is used in the first and second lines of the poem “ with a wind” and “flare and falter” Even in the absence of wind they “steer” themselves between the “kite sticks of the southern cross”

The reference to the Southern Cross constellation is of great importance as far as the theme of the poem is concerned. The idea of cross and crucifixion- of the sacrifice of a faultless Christ  makes its entry in the poem. The Southern Cross is also an important symbol in Egyptian mythology as it represented the place where Horus, the Sun-goddess, was crucified, marking the passage of winter. The archetypal notion of salvation and sacrifice is thus seen in this stanza through the reference to the Southern Cross between whose kite sticks the fire lanterns steer. The animals of the forest and different life forms will soon be sacrificed at the altar of human tradition. Notably, the Southern Cross constellation also features on the flag of Brazil, a place that witnesses the celebration this poem talks about.  

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 5

“receding, dwindling, solemnly

and steadily forsaking us,

or, in the downdraft from a peak,

suddenly turning dangerous.”

The balloons move to the distance and appear to be “solemnly” and “steadily” forsaking humankind. We later see that humans, by virtue of their “illegal” action of lighting up the illegal fire balloons, forsake the countless hapless animals who later suffer due to the irresponsible actions of humans. Stanza 5 presents a turn in both the trajectory of the balloons and the tone of the poem. The lights “recede”, “dwindle”, “solemnly and steadily”. The tune of the poem shifts as they suddenly appear “dangerous” when they are caught in the downdraft wind from a peak. There was a reason they were called “illegal” earlier, as we learn how they are dangerous when they fall to the ground. A sight of beauty suddenly becomes menacing.

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 6

“Last night another big one fell.

It splattered like an egg of fire

against the cliff behind the house.

The flame ran down. We saw the pair”

Again the poet paints a detailed picture of what’s happening as she recollects how she witnessed a balloon falling down. Using a simile she explains how a balloon fell “like an egg of fire” behind her house. It cracked open and went ablaze. As a result, the forest behind her house catches fire as the flames ran down the cliff, endangering the houses and wildlife in the area. The use of the “egg of fire” that splatters against the flame with its flame-yolk running down the cliff is a stunning imagery that has been used in the poem. The “eggs of fire” is juxtaposed with the flight of the birds who flee their nest. The use of this peculiar phrase also inverts its very meaning. Eggs – the point that gives birth to life begins- now becomes a point that gives birth to death. 

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 7

“of owls who nest there flying up

and up, their whirling black-and-white

stained bright pink underneath, until

they shrieked up out of sight.”

Stanza 6 witnesses the horrifying sight of two owls fleeing the fire. Their nest must have caught fire which made them “fly out”. They appear black and white with “bright pink” from the flames underneath, their pink flesh is exposed as they are burned by the fire – a sight that captures their vulnerability. The image is made frightening as the poet says she heard the owls “shrieking” and flying out of sight. 

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 8

“The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.

Hastily, all alone,

a glistening armadillo left the scene,

rose-flecked, head down, tail down,”

The poet assumes that those poor creatures must have lost their home. By calling them “ancient” she establishes that these forests belonged to the wildlife creatures that have been living there for centuries. Suddenly, an irresponsible fire has invaded and destroyed their home. Another creature tries to escape after the owls- an armadillo. It appears “glistening” and “rose flecked” due to the fire ravaging behind. It too is struggling as it gets burned and thus it was hurriedly trying to flee with its “head down, tail down” – a sight of sheer helplessness. While armadillos are known to have a tough exoskeleton – a protective armour of sorts- they too are unable to bear the scorching heat of the fire.  

Because this poem is dedicated to Robert Lowell, who frequently wrote against America’s bombing of Germany, it can also be read in reference to the world war. The disastrous effect of the balloons represents how manmade things that appear beautiful can also be turned into deadly weapons. The fire-eggs that splatter on unsuspecting animals bear a close similarity to the bombs that rained down on hapless victims in the war, destroying their homes and decimating countless lives. The people, crushed by the war, had to flee from their blazing houses – quite like the armadillo that tries to escape with its “head down, tail down”

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 9

“and then a baby rabbit jumped out,

short-eared, to our surprise.

So soft!—a handful of intangible ash

with fixed, ignited eyes.”

After that, a baby rabbit appears, looking traumatized. By adding the word “soft” to describe the rabbit the poet emphasizes the innocence of these poor creatures. It’s in contrast to the harsh and terrifying nature of the fire. The rabbit is covered in ash and its eyes appear “ignited”, it got scorched by the fire and it’s terrified. This innocent life form, this “ handful of intangible ash” stands shocked “with fixed, ignited eyes” – its eyes capture the raging fire outside, a devastating reality so vivid that its eyes seem to have caught fire.

The Armadillo | Analysis, Stanza 10

“Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!

Of falling fire and piercing cry

and panic, and a weak mailed fist

clenched ignorant against the sky!”

This last stanza draws out the central picture of the poem. It focuses on the awful destruction caused by the fire balloons. The words “piercing cry” and “panic” show the dreadful state of the creatures as they get burned by the fire. The “dreamlike mimicry” refers to the beautiful illusion the balloons created before causing such havoc. There’s nothing one can do except “raise a weak clenched fist against the sky”.

The Armadillo | Theme 

The poem talks about the terror and destruction that is caused by manmade inventions and condemns the cruel acts of men against nature. The dreadful destruction of the wildlife caused by the lanterns is symbolic of the way mankind is destroying the world with war. This poem is dedicated to Robert Lowell, who wrote against America’s bombing of Germany thus it can be assumed that the poem is a reference to the world war that was going on at that time. The disastrous effect of the balloons represents how man-made things that appear beautiful can also be turned into deadly weapons. The fire balloons are a direct reference to the bombs used in the war. The armadillo running with its “head down, tail down” symbolizes the fear such weapons can cause inside people. Armadillos have a strong protective hide but even they can’t escape the sinister fire, similarly, the people can’t protect themselves against the bombs. With the line a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky” at the end of the poem the poet highlights the vulnerability of the innocent people, who, like the armadillo, can’t do anything to defend themselves against the terrible destruction caused by war.

The Armadillo | Poetic devices 

The poem uses poetic devices like simile, metaphor, personification and alliteration. An example of simile used can be seen in lines “light that comes and goes, like hearts” and “It splattered like an egg of fire”. Alliteration can be seen in the use of words “frail” and “fire” “downdraft” and “dangerous” “flare and falter”. The port uses enjambment several times; by cutting off a line suddenly the poet compels the reader to move quickly to the next line, thus engulfing the reader in the rapidity of action. The poet also uses metaphor by comparing the lanterns to a star constellation and personifies the lanterns by saying they appear majestic as they “forsake” humans.


The Armadillo | About the poet

Born in Massachusetts, United States Elizabeth Bishop (1911 –1979) was an American poet and short-story writer. She was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956. She and Robert Lowell were great friends; they mostly stayed in touch via written correspondence, until Lowell’s death in 1977. Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour” is known to be influenced by Bishop’s “The Armadillo”.







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