The Armadillo Elizabeth Bishop Essays
read this poet's poems
Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was less than a year old, her father died, and shortly thereafter, her mother was committed to a mental asylum. Bishop was first sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and later lived with paternal relatives in Worcester and South Boston. She earned a bachelor's degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1934.
Bishop was independently wealthy, and from 1935 to 1937 she spent time traveling to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy and then settled in Key West, Florida, for four years. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her travels and the scenery that surrounded her, as with the Florida poems in her first book of verse, North & South (Houghton Mifflin), published in 1946.
She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was a close friend, mentor, and stabilizing force in her life. Unlike her contemporary and good friend Robert Lowell, who wrote in the Confessional style, Bishop's poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.
Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense. She lived for many years in Brazil, communicating with friends and colleagues in America only by letter. She wrote slowly and published sparingly (her Collected Poems number barely one hundred), but the technical brilliance and formal variety of her work is astonishing. For years she was considered a "poet's poet," but with the publication of her last book, Geography III (Chatto and Windus), in 1977, Bishop was finally established as a major force in contemporary literature.
She received the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955). Her Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), won the National Book Award in 1970. That same year, Bishop began teaching at Harvard University, where she worked for seven years.
Elizabeth Bishop was awarded an Academy Fellowship in 1964 for distinguished poetic achievement, and served as a Chancellor from 1966 to 1979. She died in her apartment at Lewis Wharf in Boston on October 6, 1979, and her stature as a major poet continues to grow through the high regard of the poets and critics who have followed her.
Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (Library of America, 2008)
Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)
Geography III (Chatto and Windus, 1977)
Poem (Phoenix Book Shop,1973)
The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969)
The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968)
Questions of Travel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965)
Poems (Chatto and Windus, 1956)
Poems: North and South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955)
North & South (Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
One Art: Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)
The Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984)
The Diary of Helena Morley (Ecco Press, 1977)
Brazil (Time, inc., 1962)
Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry (with Emmanuel Brasil) (Wesleyan University Press, 1972)
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
- 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.
- 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…’.
- 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.
- The poet highlights and personifies both the balloons beauty and its grace as well as the danger it can cause.
- 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’).
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The last stanza is powerful. The balloons are described as ‘Too pretty…’, suggesting that beautiful things can often cause harm (Moment of Awareness).
- ‘Climbing the mountain height, rising toward a saint…’
- ‘…the paper chambers flush and fill with light that comes and goes, like hearts.’
- ‘With a wind, they flare and falter, wobble and toss…’
- ‘…suddenly turning dangerous.’
- ‘It splattered like an egg of fire…’
- ‘…a glistening Armadillo left the scene, rose-flecked, head down, tail down.’
- ‘…and a weak mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky.’
Poetic Techniques Used:
*Anthropomorphism: giving an animal human qualities.
As always, don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have.