The hippo bottom of us

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One of the most successful weekly essays I wrote in an early sixties college class on modern English poetry was about T. S. Eliot's "The Hippopotamus", the first two (out of nine) stanzas of which read thus:

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,            5
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The professor loved my paper, especially the title (the same as the title of this post), because in it I developed the idea that, at base, we are all like the hippopotamus.  In our corporeal existence, we wallow in the muck and mud, but the True Church (through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ [the Blood of the Lamb]) intercedes for us, purifies our soul, and takes us up to heaven where — light and airy — we are at one with God.

I revel in this kind of word play where the surface signification and sound of words can be reinterpreted in such a way that we arrive at a deeper understanding of the thing in question.  I had another one in mind this morning when I was waking up, but in the course of my matutinal ablutions, I have forgotten what it was.

Never mind!  It's time to go out and do some wood gathering for the fireplace.


  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 12:56 am

    How did you fit the last stanza

    He shall be washed as white as snow
    By all the martyred virgins kist,
    While the True Church remains below,
    Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

    into your argument?

  2. Mark Mandel said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 1:16 am

    Nice! …. Uh, what was I saying? Sorry, I was woolgathering. (gd&ravvf)

    (Dear me! I know I didn't invent that abbreviation— for "grin, duck, and run away very very fast"— but picked it up somewhere; but almost all the Google hits are from me. A couple use it in German text, though.)

  3. AndrewD said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 2:48 am

    Whilst i am sure that T.S.Elliot wrote an excellent poem, most English readers of a certain age will be more familiar wirh Flanders And Swann her

  4. Adam Roberts said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 3:00 am

    Eliot's beast is a Hope-opotamus.

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 6:33 am

    I immediately thought of Flanders and Swann and I much prefer them to Eliot :)

  6. bks said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 8:41 am

    by Shel Silverstein

    Let us make a pair of pants
    For the poor old Hippopotamus
    To cover his hide—once we decide
    Exactly how big his bottomus.

  7. James Wimberley said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    No more off-topic than other comments, a nice photo of a hippo in the surf on an African beach.

  8. David Jodrey a.k.a. mistah charley, ph.d. said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 10:09 am

    By coincidence, I cited a hippopotamus poem in a letter I sebt to the Financial Times yesterday, and as they are unlikely to print it I hope it will not be too unwelcome here:

    Sir, Wolfgang Münchau says "we should start making a distinction between the financial sector's interests and the economy at large" ("Reform the economic system now or the populists will do it", December 19).

    An author writing in England foresaw this situation over a century ago. I refer not to Karl Marx, but Lewis Carroll. Although Carroll's 1889 novel Sylvie and Bruno earned its obscurity, there is a gem in it – "The Mad Gardener's Song". In one verse Carroll predicted the metastasis of the financial sector from its proper role, as a facilitator of business activity, to its current position in which it is eating everyone's lunch:

    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!’

  9. Theophylact said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 10:35 am

    by Hilaire Belloc

    I shoot the Hippopotamus
    with bullets made of platinum,
    Because if I use leaden ones
    his hide is sure to flatten 'em.

  10. Emily said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    If we're collecting hippo poetry (hippoetry?) here's a couplet from the children's book Johnny Crow's Garden by L Leslie Brooke:
    Then the Stork
    Gave a Philosophic Talk
    Till the Hippopotami
    Said: "Ask no further, "What am I?'"

  11. Emily said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    (If by "a couplet" I mean "two couplets.")

  12. Cervantes said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 10:41 am


    How did you fit the last stanza […] into your argument?

    No doubt Eliot's poem was a satire on the corruption of the church.

  13. Jonathan said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 11:30 am

    And of course Ogden Nash:

    Behold the hippopotamus!
    We laugh at how he looks to us,
    And yet in moments dank and grim,
    I wonder how we look to him.

    Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!
    We really look all right to us,
    As you no doubt delight the eye
    Of other hippopotami.

  14. Mara K said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 12:28 pm

    Hope-opotamus has no feathers, sadly.

  15. Rodger C said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

    I have to say that when I read your interpretation of the Eliot, the first thing that popped into my head was the line, "The Church can sleep and feed at once."

  16. Roscoe said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

    Arthur Guiterman, "Habits of the Hippopotamus":

    The hippopotamus is strong
    And huge of head and broad of bustle;
    The limbs on which he rolls along
    Are big with hippopotomuscle.

  17. David said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

    The "gd&r" family of abbreviations were used often in the early 1990s on General Electric's GEnie network, particularly on the Science Fiction Roundtable section.

  18. philip said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

    All right Victor – please give us the full paper so we can judge your argument and your professor's judgment.

  19. bobbie said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    And one more song

  20. David Jodrey a.k.a. mistah charley, ph.d. said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    I am glad to report that my letter to the Financial Times, about the Banker's Clerk who became a Hippopotamus, was published by them on December 21 under the title "Lewis Carroll foresaw the future of finance."

  21. Michael said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 7:39 am

    Job 40
    15 Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
    16 Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
    17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
    18 His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

  22. KeithB said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 11:23 am

    And how about, in the spirit of Christmas:

    I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
    Only a hippopotamus will do
    Don't want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy
    I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy

    I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
    I don't think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
    He won't have to use our dirty chimney flue
    Just bring him through the front door,
    That's the easy thing to do

    I can see me now on Christmas morning,
    creeping down the stairs
    Oh what joy and what surprise
    when I open up my eyes
    to see a hippo hero standing there

    I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
    Only a hippopotamus will do
    No crocodiles, no rhinoceroses
    I only like hippopotamuses
    And hippopotamuses like me too

    Mom says the hippo would eat me up, but then
    Teacher says a hippo is a vegeterian.

    There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage
    I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage

    I can see me now on Christmas morning,
    creeping down the stairs
    Oh what joy and what surprise
    when I open up my eyes
    to see a hippo hero standing there

    I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
    Only a hippopotamus will do
    No crocodiles or rhinoceroseses
    I only like hippopotamuseses
    And hippopotamuses like me too!

  23. David Marjanović said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

    Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!

    Easy – just stay out of its territory. Crocodiles will kill you when they're hungry; hippos will kill you for trespassing.

  24. Danny said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    A kid's song about realizing that other people have feelings:

    I'm a hippopotamus
    From my top to my bottomus

    All the hippopotamuses and hippopotamisters
    Have hippopotafeelings, too!

  25. Alyssa said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

    Well, for us Americans it's only one couplet :) Took me a minute to realize I was supposed to be rhyming "stork" and "talk".

  26. Adam Roberts said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 4:55 am

    I can't resist adding one more hippo song to this thread. Funniest use of the name 'Steve' in any song I know.

  27. johnny wink said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 1:46 pm

    Un proverbio italiano dice, "Pensa oggi e parla domani," ma Donaldo Orfello dice, "Pensa oggi e cinguetta oggi."

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