#57 “The Armadillo” (Elizabeth Bishop)

In teaching “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop, I often get stuck on the phrase “fire balloons.” Students, evidently trained by cadres of English teachers to suspect that nothing in a poem can be what it says it is, venture all kinds of guesses at the hidden meaning of “fire balloons.” Are they stars, planets, angels, UFOs?

Well, they’re actually fire balloons. I mean, I don’t have a letter from Elizabeth Bishop proving this point, but the balloons in the poem behave exactly as the balloons on this completely unrelated website say they do. They’re made of paper, they rise with the hot air produced by a lit source, they wobble, they are illegal, they fall eventually, they start fires. The speaker in the poem simply watches them, and sees their typical consequences.

So the balloons are literal balloons. But as the website suggests, they are often mistaken for other things. They seem to have hearts; they seem to “steer” (though they really just drift). They seem to be “solemn” and to “forsake” us. Is there anything that people won’t read themselves into?

Though they are inanimate and directionless, the balloons represent danger. People don’t intend them to inflict harm, but they do. The idea that beauty can be dangerous is a feature of some great poetry, from Shakespeare’s sonnets through Keats and Byron to the 1890s and on into confessional and postmodern modes of the late 20th century. Here, Elizabeth Bishop combines two poles of experience in the same incandescent lyric. Beauty and hope fly upward; destruction and inhumanity descend. Which way do we turn? Which, in the poem, is more real?


10 responses to “#57 “The Armadillo” (Elizabeth Bishop)

  1. I think the armadillo in this poem is symbolic for something, I just cannot figure out what it is… my mind wonders from meaning to meaning, and there are many that seem possible, I’m just not sure if one is right. Maybe the armadillo stands for things that are tough and rigid against the tragedies in life (i.e. fire), and seem to prosper through them.

    An interesting concept from this poem is the existence of both the beauty of the balloon, and the fatality it is able to cause. In the beginning, the balloon seems distant and beautiful and then falls to the ground, causing a terrible fire which harms several animals. Then the image of the armadillo emerging from the fire is mentioned oddly.

    It is possible that the poem is trying to convey the message that in all beauty, there is some form of imperfection; nothing is as flawless and beautiful as it seems from far away… part of the balloon’s beauty seems to stem from the fact that it floats freely and has a mind of its own, but it seems as though too much freedom leads to disaster.

  2. The fire balloons in this poem make me wonder if the beauty of watching them rise is worth the destruction they inflict on the town. They are so like the mistakes many people should know better than to make. There have been so many times I have done something that I know would have a disastrous outcome. I try to learn from these decisions but there are people who fail to grasp the lesson that comes from these mistakes. Is the decimation of a forest worth the pleasure of seeing light rise into the sky? The light will last for no more than a few hours but the destruction of the fire can take weeks, month and even years to repair. People need to consider the consequences of their action before they do serious damage. I think if people would take more time to consider the consequences of their actions a lot of unfortunate events could have been avoided. As young adults we don’t often think things through. We are impulsive and simply want to see the pretty light rise into the air and watch it float away.

  3. In the poem “The Armadillo” by Robert Lowell, talks about a fire balloon that turns to a dangerous situation. To me this poem shows us how most of us do not associate pretty with dangerous. At first the speaker tells us about how pretty the fire balloon looked like fireworks, and then all of a sudden it turns dangerous. The balloon could be viewed as all the nice and pretty things in life that we never look at them as something negative. For example, research has shown that most of never think of a good looking person as being harmful. This could be what the poem is trying to symbolize, that pretty things could also be dangerous.

  4. firewaterboi321

    I’m sure in some way one could make allusions to Elizabeth Bishop’s meaning in this poem. Honestly, I found the “dangerous beauty” allusion to be toward the end of the poem. I was fortunate enough to hear a recorded reading on “The Armadillo,” but even that failed to help me understand her meaning. What’s obvious is that these fire balloons are an extreme hazard to wildlife in forests and mountain areas. “Once up against the sky it’s hard to tell them from the stars…” does indicate a type of ethereal beauty to a fire balloon in the night sky. The last stanza gave some literary allusion to a “cruel” fist held against the sky. I suppose you could say this makes an allusion to the cruelty of whoever the person was that thought a dangerous device that can set things on fire (like a wooded area) could be a fun idea. I would imagine at some point the light from a large fire in a wooded area would be “pretty” or “beautiful,” but that would seem more like a terrible beauty. Hardly worth the destruction that it would cause…unless that was her point all along?

  5. Although in the poem beauty seems to lead to disaster and destruction i believe a key part of this concept is that it is brought about by human hands. The balloons are created as symbols of worship and praise to saints yet within these good intentions lies a severe danger and potential harm to that which deserves it the least, the animals of the forest. end even though the speaker acts as a mere observer not swaying the reader toward sentimentality towards either the fire balloons or the animals (Ponelope Laurens) I believe there is a greater connection with the natural world rather than with the mystifying fire balloons because these animals span the length of time “the ancient owl” yet even with their time to adapt they are helpless against the creations of man. in the last stanza the fire balloons are ignorant against the sky, my interpretation of that is that our creations, our beautiful things in the face of the greatness of the sky are ignorant we dont truly understand what beauty is for if in fact it was beauty in its most true state it would not create pain.

  6. The poem “The Armadillo”, does not have really any feeling to it. Most of the other poems that we have read has meant something to me.

  7. The poem “The Armadillo” does not really have a feeling to it. Most of the other poems that we have read have meant something to me. I think this poem is explaining that everything that glitters is not gold. We may like the way something looks and think it is good for us and in the end it is not. At the beginning of the poem it talks about how wonderful the fire balloons are and at the end the fire balloons are representing something bad. I believe that the armadillo is symbolizing this thing that is not good for us. This armadillo is symbolizing some kind of pain that we may think is beauty.

  8. I will comment on this poem because of the lack of commentary it already has. It may be out of a personal impractical aspiration for the poems to have equal commentary, but nevertheless I will post a comment. To the reader of this poem the armadillo may or may not have significance, however the title is after all “Armadillo.” Therefore I believe the writer had some significance in mind when she wrote the poem. I agree with the professor’s comments on how the poem sort of mediates between beauty and danger. I believe we can most certainly find much of beauty and danger coupled together in life. They almost always go hand in hand. I also agree with the statement made in class that things that have a mind of their own have potentially powerful significance. The question of “what does beauty consist of?” generates many thoughts. Perhaps it is in fact as they say in the eye of the beholder, but we cannot always take what “they” say to be true. Many things are beautiful in this world although man will always have an opinion or preference to beauty. One may find a car to be beautiful, while another man may find a tornado to be equal in splendor. In the professor’s commentary the question and statement ”Beauty and hope fly upward; destruction and inhumanity descend. Which way do we turn? Which, in the poem, is more real?” To me the darkness of destruction is perceived as more “real” to humans most because we seem to think about destruction and things of that nature more often than not. We have become more desensitized with that of beauty because of advances made in society that allows it to become most commonplace. In a way it seems that we do not notice the world in a “big picture.” There are exceptions, but overall everyone in society has a tendency to stay in a little box or comfort zone for the most part. I guess everyone needs to read a little Ayn Rand every now and then.

  9. The Armadillo to me shows something deeper than just a balloon that comes to the ground and starts a fire. There is such calm and beauty in the balloon as it rises towards the Saint. You think of two people alone on their porch watching the night stars and listening to the sounds of the animals and insects. As they sit there some one points it out and they leisurely watch it climb. I see it like a miniature hot air balloon as it starts to recede to the ground. The people watching it don’t know really what’s happening until it hits the ground. This is when I feel that the poem gets a little chaotic in a calm way. The animals abandon their homes while the people watch in heart wrenching silence. There is a beauty in this leaving the woods process as well with the ashes covering the animals. For it to be such a terrible experience I find it amazing that the beauty can be seen within.

  10. In writing “The Armadillo”, Elizabeth Bishop explores the idea that freedom is beautiful. This idea is a simple one yet probably goes unnoticed by most. A fire balloon represents true freedom. A kite is unlike a fire balloon in the fact it is controlled by humans. Control is restriction and restrictions can never be as beautiful as free will and free choice represented by the fire balloon within this poem. A fire balloon is free to move in whatever way the wind pulls or pushes it; its final destination is unknown. There is something powerful about not knowing where we will be lead. A predetermined life is a boring one, a life enriched by freedom and choice is exciting. Sure there is a chance that as soon as the fire balloon takes flight the wind will take it and throw it back to the ground and demolish it. But at the same time there is a chance that fire balloon could go farther and higher than ever before. Life is a beautiful thing when we are not controlled by outward circumstances, sure we will fail sometimes but given the right conditions we could soar higher than ever before.

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