Elizabeth Bishop, “The Armadillo”

You can link to the poem here:


I’ve never been quite satisfied with the ending of this poem. What a delight the rest is though! Throughout, there’s an extraordinary sensitivity of movement. Take the way the first two stanzas expand and contract metrically. This surely echoes the expansion and contraction of the beating heart, subliminally embedding a feeling of the heart’s life in the very texture of the verse even before the heart itself is mentioned. Even more, though, it suggests the pulsations of feeling and thought, the swelling of enthusiasm, the hesitations of doubt and discouragement . The swelling effect is felt most strongly is line 7; in terms of traditional accentual-syllabic scansion this line is the exact equivalent of line 3, but it feels about twice as long because where line 3 moves rapidly, slurring its second, third and fourth feet, line 7 gives them full weight, leaning distinctly on each syllable, so that our minds are gently flooded with a sense of beauty and joy and easy expansiveness as we imagine those fire balloons filling with light. Throughout, the writing is extraordinarily evocative. I almost said it was extraordinarily packed with suggestion, but that metaphor seems false to the rapidity and lightness with which the poem flickers between hints and half ideas – the associations of boudoirs, papery wasp nests and the transparent chambers of a nautilus shell that hover behind the “paper chambers”, for example, before they’re definitively linked to hearts, or the way “climbing the mountain height” evokes an image of plodding human pilgrims processing to a mountain church and perhaps also of Basho’s snail climbing Mount Fuji. Above all, in the first half of the poem, I love the way Bishop interweaves her description of this religious festival with wry hints of romantic failure and abandonment and perhaps even of a love affair gone nasty (“light / that comes and goes like hearts”;  “receding, dwindling, solemnly / and steadily forsaking us”; “suddenly turning dangerous”).

There’s a peculiar grace to the way this poem combines what often seem like mutually exclusive qualities: multiple and elusive suggestiveness on the one hand; clarity of overall direction on the other. The clear line through is given by the adverbial phrases and clauses with which nearly all its sentences begin: “This is the time of year”; “Climbing the mountain height”; “Once up against the sky”; “With a wind”; “but if it’s still”; “Last night”. Syntactically, and in terms of what you might call the discursive situation, step follows step as unambiguously as in a well-written narrative or expository essay. But this syntactical clarity is not matched by the form. It’s not just that the form changes but that there’s something like an overlapping of and shimmering between formal patterns. This, I think, keeps us off balance, giving the whole poem a feeling of volatility, uncertainty and openness that makes us sensitive to all the lightly touched shifts of tone and hinted vistas of suggestion that I’ve talked about. So clarity of direction on one level is complemented by uncertainty and openness on others, and in this way centripetal and centrifugal tendencies are beautifully balanced against each other.

Illustrating what I mean about the formal patterns is a dry business but I’ll point to some elements. To me the end of line three feels like the end of a stanza, mainly because the way the lengthening of the line coincides with the end of a sentence creates a strong sense of coming to rest. This felt tercet is embedded within what is unambiguously a quatrain in terms of visual layout and the ABAB rhyme pattern. However, if I say the poem to myself without looking at the words on the page the sentence division overrides the stanza division (there’s a much stronger sense of pause at the end of line three than after line four) and the first eight lines seem to break into a three line unit followed by a five line one. In terms of rhyme, the ABAB pattern of the first stanza gives way to a pattern in the second whereby only the second and fourth lines rhyme. However, the third line of stanza two rhymes with lines two and four of stanza one, as if to make the first eight lines cohere as a single stanza. And the instability of rhyme pattern is matched by instability of metrical pattern. The first two stanzas create a clear expectation of a pattern of two trimeter lines followed by a pentameter and a final trimeter.  But the third stanza shifts this pattern to an alternation of tetrameters with trimeters. And then the poem shifts again so that the majority of lines are tetrameters.



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