Representative of the formal qualities of Elizabeth BISHOP’s poetry, as well as the emotional and moral force that underlies her best work, “The Armadillo” describes the “the frail, illegal fire balloons” that are a traditional part of saints’ days celebrations in Brazil, where the author lived for many years. The poem contrasts the ethereal beauty of the objects as they rise in the night sky to the destruction they cause when they fall in flames onto the wildlife below. As Penelope Laurens argues, Bishop “shapes the reader’s response to this beautiful and cruel event” through her use of metrical variation (77). Until the final stanza, “the habitually shifting rhythms of the poem” keep the reader “from ‘taking sides’—from becoming, that is, too caught up either in the beauty of the balloons or the terror of the animals” (77). Until a sudden downdraft directs one of these balloons back to Earth in the sixth quatrain, they falter through the air in an irregular rhythm but seemingly in harmony with the natural phenomena around them, being barely decipherable from Venus or Mars. With characteristic attention to descriptive detail, Bishop slowly develops these ambiguous images before moving on to devote the next three stanzas of her poem to miniportraits of the unwitting victims of the fiery crash: a “pair of owls,” “a glistening armadillo,” and “a baby rabbit.” Not until the ninth stanza, when the speaker utters the expletive “So soft!,” seemingly in a spontaneous response to the sight of the rabbit, does Bishop allow the reader to identify fully with the animals. This identification then prepares for the final four italicized lines, which form an outcry of futile anguish and despair at the vulnerability of the animals—and by extension of all of us—to senseless destruction and suffering.

As Bonnie Costello observes, because “The Armadillo” is dedicated to Bishop’s friend Robert LOWELL, some people read it “as a critique of his way of making art out of suffering” (75). Others, however, connect the poem with Lowell’s decision to become a conscientious objector when Allied forces started fire-bombing Germany during World War II. Laurens, for instance, claims that “Bishop’s poem points directly to these fire bombings, which wreaked the same kind of horrifying destruction on a part of our universe that fire balloons wreak on the animals” (81). In this reading, the closing image of the armadillo’s “weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky” mirrors a soldier’s vulnerability and helplessness in spite of his protective armor. After reading “The Armadillo,” Lowell himself was inspired to write “Skunk Hour,” which he, in turn, dedicated to Bishop. Both poems, as he once remarked, “start with drifting description and end with a single animal” (109).


Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge,

Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Laurens, Penelope. “‘Old Correspondences’: Prosodic Transformations

in Elizabeth Bishop.” In Elizabeth Bishop and

Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann

Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 75–95.

Lowell, Robert. “On ‘Skunk Hour.'” In The Contemporary

Poet as Artist and Critic, edited by Anthony Ostroff.

Boston: Little, Brown, 1964, pp. 107–110.

Sharon Talley