T.S. Eliot’s “The Hippopotamus,” A Personal Critique

While on my LDS proselytising mission to Belgium and France in the 1960s, I came to appreciate the early poems of T.S. Eliot (1920).  They have a “glib and satirical vein” which I enjoyed.  They are also superficial enough so I could appreciate them without having to have a PhD in English literature.  My favorite was (and still is) “The Hippopotamus.”

These days I spend as much time as I can in Africa.  And during the occasional short safari, I frequently see hippos.  They spend the day in water trying to stay cool, and at night they forage on land for food.  Despite their obese, ungainly look, they can move surprising fast and can be unpredictably cantankerous.  They are one of Africa’s deadliest threats.

One of Africa's Most Fearsome Animals

One of Africa’s Most Fearsome Animals

  • I saw the ‘potamus take wing
  • Ascending from the damp savannas,
  • And quiring angels round him sing
  • The praise of God, in loud hosannas.
  • Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
  • And him shall heavenly arms unfold,
  • Among the saints he shall be seen
  • Performing on a harp of gold.
  • He shall be washed as white as snow,
  • By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
  • While the True Church remains below
  • Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

The images of a hippo “taking wing,” “performing on a harp of gold,” and being “washed as white as snow” are fun.  The contrasting of the hippo to the True Church is facile and irreverent, but it is thought-provoking to think of the church being stuck in a “miasmal mist” while the hippo is being kissed by “martyr’d virigins.”  While T.S. Eliot is lampooning institutional churches, he is also poking fun at spiritual pride in general.

hippo1

The prologue to the poem reads:  “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.”  This is a direct quote from the NT book of Colossians (KJV 4:16).  Laodicea was an ancient city in eastern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).  The word Laodicean has come to be used to describe a person who is “lukewarm or indifferent to religion.”

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One Response to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hippopotamus,” A Personal Critique

  1. Pingback: I Discovered St. Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans | Tired Road Warrior

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