The Hippopotamus

The Hippopotamus

Original Text
T. S. Eliot, Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920): 27-28. E546 A753 1920a Fisher Rare Book Library.
Similiter et omnes revereantur Diaconos, ut mandatum Jesu Christi; et Episcopum, ut Jesum Christum, existentem filium Patris; Presbyteros autem, ut concilium Dei et conjunctionem Apostolorum. Sine his Ecclesia non vocatur; de quibus suadeo vos sic habeo.
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.
3Rests on his belly in the mud;
4Although he seems so firm to us
5He is merely flesh and blood.
6Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
7Susceptible to nervous shock;
8While the True Church can never fail
10The hippo's feeble steps may err
11In compassing material ends,
12While the True Church need never stir
13To gather in its dividends.
14The 'potamus can never reach
15The mango on the mango-tree;
16But fruits of pomegranate and peach
17Refresh the Church from over sea.
18At mating time the hippo's voice
19Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
20But every week we hear rejoice
21The Church, at being one with God.
22The hippopotamus's day
23Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
25The Church can sleep and feed at once.
26I saw the 'potamus take wing
27Ascending from the damp savannas,
31And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
32Among the saints he shall be seen
33Performing on a harp of gold.
36While the True Church remains below
37Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.


2] Eliot's amusing homage to Théophile Gautier's "L'Hippopotame":
L'hippopotame au large ventre
Habite aux Jungles de Java,
Où grondent, au fond de chaque antre,
Plus de monstres qu-on n'en rêva.

Le boa se déroule et siffle,
Le tigre fait son hurlement,
Le buffle en colère renifle,
Lui dort ou paît tranquillement.

Il ne craint ni kriss ni zagaies,
Il regarde l'homme sans fuir,
Et rit des balles de cipayes
Qui rebondissent sur son cuir.

Je suis comme l'hippopotame:
De ma conviction couvert,
Forte armure que rien n'entame,
Je vais sans peur par le désert.
(Poésies Complètes, ed. René Jasinki [Paris: A. G. Nizet, 1970], II, 207).

The first epigraph belongs to St. Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. 110), one of the early fathers of the church who defined doctrine and heresy. Eliot quotes from his epistle to the Turkish city of Tralles. See "Ignatius to the Trallians," III.1-2, in The Apostolic Fathers, with a translation by Kirsopp Lake (London: William Heinemann,1919), I, 215:
Likewise let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as the bishop is also a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the Council of God and the college of Apostles. Without these the name of "Church" is not given. I am confident that you accept this.
The second epigraph comes from Colossians 4.16, where Paul urges the churches in Laodicea to read his address aloud in public. Eliot read this poem -- "some light satirical stuff" (as he wrote his mother on Dec. 22, 1917) -- at a charitable benefit for the rich that month in the home of Sybil Colefax, well-known in London's society. Valerie Eliot also notes that one of those attending, the novelist Arnold Bennett, wrote in his journal, "Had I been the house, this would have brought the house down" (The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot, Vol. 1: 1898-1922 [London: Faber and Faber, 1988]: 212-13). B. C. Southam suggests that Eliot saw a private joke here. He started as a banker's clerk at Lloyd's in March 1917, "an event he signified here through an allusion to one of the Songs in Sylvie and Bruno (1889), the novel by Lewis Carroll: `He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk /Descending from the bus: / He looked again, and found it was / A Hippopotamus: "If this should stay to dine," he said, / "There won't be much for us!"'" (A Guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 6th edn. [San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994]: 106). Back to Line
9] Jesus told Peter that he would build his church "upon this rock," that is, on Peter himself, whose name descends from the word "rock" in Latin (Matthew 16.8). Back to Line
24] The first line of a famous hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800). Back to Line
28] quiring: forming themselves in choirs or singing orders. Back to Line
29] hosannas: Hebrew expression for "pray, save us" and adopted in English to mean a worshipper's cry of praise and love for God. Back to Line
30] Jesus, believed to be the son of God and sent on earth as a human being to take upon himself the punishment God meted out to Adam, Eve, and all their children for original sin. Jesus' blood, in the form of the communion wine, permits Christians to benefit from this redemptive "satisfaction" for God's justice. Jesus is called a lamb because his New Testament life and death was believed to have been prefigured by God's sending of a ram (a male sheep) for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. Back to Line
34] Cf. Psalms 51.7: "wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Back to Line
35] kist: kissed (an archaic form). Back to Line
Publication Start Year
Publication Notes
Little Review 4.3 (July 1917): 8-11.
RPO poem Editors
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition
RPO 1998.
Special Copyright

© T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber Ltd 1974