‘The Armadillo’ by Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo

by Elizabeth Bishop

Upon analysing a poem, I like to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context.  The following notes outline the story of ‘The Armadillo’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.

The Story of the Poem

  1. The poem is set in Brazil where Bishop lived with her partner. Every June her neighbours commemorate their local saint by releasing balloons (Chinese lanterns) into the night sky.
  2. The Chinese lanterns are described as drifting toward the statue of the saint that they are honouring ‘Climbing a mountain height, rising toward a saint…’
  3. Bishop discusses the danger to the environment in which these particular types of balloons pose ‘Last night another big one fell. It splattered like an egg of fire…’ However, this doesn’t prevent the locals from releasing the balloons into the atmosphere every year. 
  4. The poet highlights and personifies both the balloons beauty and its grace as well as the danger it can cause.
  5. A balloon crashed into her property, destroyed vegetation and harmed animals. This highlights the tragic/destructive consequences our actions/habits/rituals can have in relation to our world/society/home. (Can you link this idea to Bishop? Think of ‘addiction’).
  6. Bishop describes the impact of the balloon crashing at her property by referencing how traumatised a rabbit had become due to the commotion caused. It is depicted as almost being hypnotised by the flames ‘So soft! – a handful of intangible ash with fixed, ignited eyes.’
  7. A single armadillo also fled the chaos. It’s leathery armour shell had become ‘…rose-flecked…’ from the fire. It is described as cowering in  its attempts to protect itself.
  8. According to the poet the purpose of the ritual involving the release of the balloons into the night sky is to imitate the idea of a prayer, or of a soul ascending to heaven. This religious ritual however has disastrous consequences for the world we all (man and animal) live in.
  9. The armadillo’s clenched fist is symbolic ‘…and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky’. It symbolises the futile rage and confusion that is present amongst the wildlife in relation to this manmade commotion.     
  10. The last stanza is powerful. The balloons are described as ‘Too pretty…’, suggesting that beautiful things can often cause harm (Moment of Awareness).


Strong Imagery:

  1. ‘Climbing the mountain height, rising toward a saint…’
  2. ‘…the paper chambers flush and fill with light that comes and goes, like hearts.’
  3. With a wind, they flare and falter, wobble and toss…’
  4. ‘…suddenly turning dangerous.’
  5. ‘It splattered like an egg of fire…’
  6. ‘…a glistening Armadillo left the scene, rose-flecked, head down, tail down.’
  7. ‘…and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky.’

Poetic Techniques Used:

  • Metaphor
  • Anthropomorphism*
  • Simile
  • Alliteration
  • Allegory
  • Personification
  • Symbolism

*Anthropomorphism: giving an animal human qualities.

As always, don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have.

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