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Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1957

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop was originally published in the June 1957 issue of The New Yorker. It also appeared in Bishop’s 1965 book Questions of Travel, in the section about Brazil, which indicates the poem is a piece of travel literature. The title in The New Yorker, “The Armadillo—Brazil,” also reflects this. Bishop became a contributor to The New Yorker in 1940, and Questions of Travel was her third book of poetry. “The Armadillo” is dedicated to the poet Robert Lowell, who wrote a poem called “Skunk Hour” (1958) in response to it.

Bishop’s “Armadillo” is about the Brazilian celebrations for saints in June, such as St. John’s Day. She specifically focuses on how people release fire balloons. Her poem thematically develops A Sense of Place and explores The Interactions Between Humans and Nature. Additionally, as a metaphor for the Cold War, the poem explores The Condemnation of Human Violence.

Poet Biography

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911. Bishop’s father passed away when she was an infant, and her mother was institutionalized for a mental health condition when she was five years old. She was raised by her paternal grandparents in Worcester, her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, and her aunt in South Boston.

While Bishop was a student at Vassar College, she became friends with Marianne Moore. The two women cofounded a literary journal, Con Spirito, at the college. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1934, Bishop—who was independently wealthy—traveled around Ireland, Spain, Italy, France, and North Africa. In 1938, she lived in Key West, Florida, for a few years. Bishop moved to Brazil with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, in 1944. The women lived there for 14 years, until Soares died by suicide in 1967.

After losing her lover, Bishop lived in San Francisco, California, and New York. In 1970, she started teaching at Harvard University and won the National Book Award for her Complete Poems, which was published in 1969. While working at Harvard, Bishop began a romantic relationship with Alice Methfessel, who remained Bishop’s partner until her death in 1979. Bishop was a Brazilian poetry translator and a painter, in addition to being a poet. She served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1950.

During her lifetime, Bishop published six books of poetry. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976, and the Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1977. She was working on a collection of poetry, tentatively titled Grandmother’s Glass Eye, when she died in 1979.

Poem Text

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Armadillo.” 1957. Poetry Foundation.


“The Armadillo” has 10 stanzas. The first stanza describes a season, or time period, in which people set off fire balloons. These are not legal. They travel up the mountains.

In the second stanza, the path of the rising fire balloons continues. They reach the realm of a local saint. The fire balloons themselves are described as pulsing lights that can be compared to heartbeats.

In the third stanza, the fire balloons are compared to stars in the sky. The speaker corrects this, changing the comparison to planets that have a tint and are close to the earth, such as Venus and Mars.

The list of planets continues in the fourth stanza. The fire balloons are easily moved in a variety of directions by wind. If there is no wind, they can pass by the constellation called the Southern Cross.

The speaker continues to trace the path of the fire balloons in the fifth stanza. They recede, or move away, and forsake their audience. Alternately, they get caught in a mountain wind and dangerously travel back down.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker describes a fire balloon falling from the sky. It splatters and sets part of a cliff behind a house on fire. The seventh stanza then looks at owls that lived on the cliff. They fly above the fire until they can’t be seen anymore. The owls are also present in the eighth stanza. The speaker guesses that their nest on the cliff was destroyed in the fire from the fire balloon. Then, the speaker sees an armadillo leave the area.

In the ninth stanza, a rabbit also leaves the area. This is a surprise to the speaker, who is part of a group of onlookers. The speaker describes the rabbit’s features, like its ears and eyes.

In the final stanza, which is italicized for emphasis, the speaker describes how imitation is excessively beautiful. The fire falls from the sky and there is an audible cry. A closed fist is raised to the sky.