The Hippopotamus

T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). Poems (Knopf, 1920). p. 27-28.


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. [3] This sheds light on the quote from the St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians.

Eliot droeg dit gedicht voor tijdens een liefdadigheidshappening in London.[2] Het bijbelcitaat uit de brief aan de Kolossenzen krijgt hierdoor betekenis. Hij typeerde dit gedicht als 'licht satirisch spul'. Het is wrsch. geënt op het gelijknamige gedicht van Théophile Gautier uit 1833. Zelfspot is desgewenst aanwezig voor wie het oeuvre van Lewis Caroll kent: een 'bankbediende' wordt daar als 'Hippopotamus' geïntroduceerd. Eliot was in 1917 net als zodanig aangenomen. [2]


The notes below are taken from Representative Poetry On-line © Department of English (University of Toronto), and the University of Toronto Press, 1998. With a few additions of my own in italics.

verklarende voetnoten in het Engels, zie onder. De vertaling van het gedicht is van Martinus Nijhoff.


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.[1]

S. Ignatii Ad Trallianos


And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans. [2]


En als deze brief onder u voorgelezen wordt, zorg er dan voor dat zij ook in de kerk van Laodicea gelezen wordt.


vertaling: Martinus Nijhoff


The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,                    10
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ’potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.          20

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

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 enfold,           30
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.

De hippopotamus ligt languit
log in de modderige vloed;
al ziet hij er onverwoestbaar uit,
hij is enkel vlees en bloed.

Vlees en bloed bederfelijk
omdat het leven zo verteert;
maar de Ware Kerk is onsterfelijk
want ze is op een rots gefundeerd.

De hippo' misstap op misstap doet
voor zijn nooddruft en onderhoud,
maar de Ware Kerk verzet geen voet
voor het inhalen van haar goud.

De 'potamus ziet een broodboom staan
en is tot plukken niet in staat,
maar er keert geen schip uit de oceaan
of de Kerk krijgt rijst en muskaat.

De hippo' wordt in de paringstijd
onwelluidend en gedraagt zich zot;
maar elke week, vol zaligheid,
huwt de zingende Kerk met God.

De hippopotamus slaapt overdag
omdat hij' s nachts uit jagen moet;
de Kerk, die God vertrouwen mag,
kan slapen terwijl zij zich voedt.

Ik zag eensklaps de 'potamus
wegvliegen uit zijn nat moeras.
Engelen zongen Laudamus
hem begroetend op hun terras.

Bloed des Lams wast hem aanstonds rein,
hij wordt als hemelzoon erkend
en zal een van de heiligen zijn
met een gouden snaarinstrument.

Maagden, martelaressen, al
wat kuis is kust hem vrij van schuld;
maar de Ware Kerk blijft in het dal
in schadelijke damp gehuld.



This poem can be read as an homage to L'Hippopotame, a poem published in 1833 by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872)


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. 

  • 1. 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.


    With this epigraph Eliot prepares the reader for a discussion on the defining elements of the true Church.

  • 2. The second epigraph comes from Colossians 4.16, where Paul urges the churches in Laodicea to read his address aloud in public.

    With this epigraph the context of the poem is captured:

    a. 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. 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).

Comments by versenumber

  • 4. 'Flesh and blood' is a pejorative pair in theology: 'Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption' (1Cor 15,50)
  • 8. 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). The Roman-catholic Tradition claims that his authority had then been transmitted to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
  • 23.The first line of a famous hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800).
  • 27. quiring: forming themselves in choirs or singing orders.
  • 28. hosannas: Hebrew expression for "pray, save us" and adopted in English to mean a worshipper's cry of praise and love for God.
  • 29. Jesus' blood - reference to his death -  permits Christians to benefit from Christ's redemptive satisfaction (atonement). It is supposed to be present (realiter, virtual or symbolic) in the Wine of the Communion. Jesus is called the Lamb of God by St John the Baptist (according to St John the evangelist), because of the 'sacrificial' nature of his death.
  • 33. Cf. Psalms 51.7: "wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."
  • 34. kist: kissed (an archaic form).  According to the Church Martyrs and Virgins were the holiest of the holy, always predominantly present in representations of the Last Judgment, and according to the Apocalyps they formed the main choirs at the Adoration of the LAmb (see una pro omnibus Van Eycks painting)
  • 36. miasmal: sickening or polluting (perhaps a reference to London's notorious smoke-fog).