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Analysis and comments on The Hippopotamus by T.S. Eliot

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Comment 21 of 31, added on September 8th, 2009 at 9:21 AM.

This poem came early in Mr. Eliot's career. In December 1917, he read it
out loud at a Red Cross charity benefit -- a poetry reading chaired by the
pompous Sir Edmund Gosse and attended by Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, the
Sitwell's and other luminaries.

It is important to note that Eliot was never an atheist. He grew up in a
Unitarian household of old New English stock, and quickly became
disenchanted with the leading Transcendental Movement lights of Emerson and
Matthew Arnold. These gods of western intellectuality, who are still
adored, could not account for Eliot the concrete experiences of Time and
History.

So you have in Eliot's Hippopotamus a clear hope for an actual Church, a
place of "atonement" with a real God, juxtaposed with a nagging frustration
at the pettiness of the Church's clergy and laity. Thus, the Church is
built upon the Rock of faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God, but still
anchored in the fallen human experience of her acolytes.

There is a difference between "material ends" and the "dividends" that
accrue to the True Church. The former are the things we complain about, and
rightly so. No one should have gold commodes and call himself an apostle of
Jesus, the One Who had nowhere to lay His head except in the soul of a
disciple. But at the same time, the real "dividends" are the "daily bread"
prayed for in the Lord's Prayer, which is nothing less than the Eucharist.

"The mango on the mango-tree" is meant to suggest the nightmare of
Tantalus. Greedy men and women in the Church will stretch out their grubby
hands to lesser, material things, like dignities of the world and the
praises of lesser powers. There is a horrible truism in Church history:
that which is lower which you reach for will be pulled ever higher out of
your reach (just like Tantalus) ... but if you reach for the highest, you
will attain (after all, "Ask and it shall be given unto you"). Hence:
"fruits of pomegranate and peach/ Refresh the Church from over sea."

The mating of hippo's must be an unattractive sight, as is every moment
when Church magistrates and rulers and leaders and bureaucrats "mate with
the world" by involving themselves in lesser things and lesser ethics. When
the churchmen practice the art of Macchiavel and engage in realpolitik and
the Jesuitical arts -- this is the "mating of hippo's" when "the hippo's
voice/ Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd ..."

But at the Liturgy, at the true marriage of human nature with the Divine:
"... every week we hear rejoice/ The Church, at being one with God."

The Church is always "at rest" in the Sabbath peace of God's fellowship.
You may disagree with this, but this is what we know. Thus we rest and are
fed in God's "mysterious way," and some of us have died -- but our Lord
careful to rename "death" as "sleep."

It is as difficult, I'm sure, to believe this about the Church as it is to
believe that Eliot saw "the 'potamus take wing" -- a reference, by the way,
to the River (i.e., "potamus" in Greek) of Baptism. And rising from
repentance and baptism, we are told, every Christian is greeted with
rejoicing angels in heaven.

The Sacraments, Eliot says poetically, must take hold and be effective,
sending those who want Sacraments and receive into the beginning of Heaven
here and now, and into the fulfillment of it at the Last Day.

All the while, "the True Church remains below/ Wrapt in the old miasmal
mist."

It is still amazing to me that Eliot, who had not yet entered the Church,
could understand what the Church needed to be and her relation to the
Trinity and what the Sacraments had to mean.

He must have looked around at the carnage of the Great World, and have seen
the death of the old Emersonian and Arnoldian dreams of a Christianity-less
world.

Jonathan from United States
Comment 20 of 31, added on July 18th, 2009 at 6:23 PM.

This may be way off track, however interesting in itself. A statue of Tsar
Alexander 3rd, by P.N. Trubetskoi, was, at the time which Eliot wrote this
poem, displayed in St. Petersburg. (the old Russian capital) A gigantic
depiction of the Tsar on horseback, to which it was nicknamed
"hippopotamus" because of its unwieldy, weighty, and inert mass. The Tsar's
relationship to the church was unequivocal, being as he was God's
representative on earth, despotic, autocratic and beyond reproach. 'blood
of the lamb shall wash him clean' yet 'washed as white as snow'. is this an
ironic play between the red of blood, the bolshevik red's and the, so
called, purity of the spotless Tsarist whites? Incidentally, Tsar Nicholas
(the last one!) replicated this statue in Moscow, facing the Kremlin, and
with its back to the church. Where are they now? Also the russian
revolution was in 1917, so just few years before this poem, it was hot news
back then. its just a thought!

terry from United Kingdom
Comment 19 of 31, added on June 21st, 2009 at 12:10 AM.

I believe that the whole poem mocks the earthly church, what it stands for
and its hipocrasy.

While the hippo struggles the church rakes in its "dividents". The church
imports and has access to fruit that the hippo has no access to.

We are then given the slightly ridiculous image of the hippo ascending into
heaven and being washed clean and white. Even the fact of a hippo being in
a poem about the church is slightly rediculous.

Still, the hippo ascends into heaven while the greedy church remains earth
bound. We are therby shown who is the more worthy of the two.

jacqueline from United Kingdom
Comment 18 of 31, added on April 23rd, 2009 at 1:21 PM.

i think eliots poem was written during a time where he was at odds with the
church.he seems to still believe in god at this point but does not agree
with the man created church. in his eyes those who will reach true
salvation are the ones that "like the hippo" struggle and suffer.

karina from Ireland
Comment 17 of 31, added on February 1st, 2009 at 10:16 AM.

I see this marvelous poem as written while the atheist, T.S. Elliot, was
struggling with his concept of the Christian Church. He saw the living
Church as unwieldy and as ugly as the hippo emersed in damp savannahs and
contrasted it with 'the true church' which exists only in the world of
ideals. In a vibrant sense Eliot was seeing the living reality of the
homely, ungainly Church of God as contrasted with the ideal that is so
often promoted by religion and the world alike.

Harlan Bemis from United States
Comment 16 of 31, added on December 18th, 2008 at 3:51 PM.

In this poem there are three terms to know:

Hippo - Life
Church - Christianity
True Church - Death

The rest should be self-explanitory.

Jason Fascio from United States
Comment 15 of 31, added on December 1st, 2008 at 11:29 PM.

This poem has been very hard for me to interpret. Eliot states that the
hippo seems so "firm" to us yet is only flesh and blood. This leads me to
understand that there must be some position of power or athourity held, but
we must realize that he is merely flesh and blood (like us). I think that
the hippo represents Eliot himself as he views himself as strong in others
eyes, but he is admitting that he is weak. Weak even in comparison to the
church that beats upon him its truths. However, in the holiness and
eagerness of his own heart, he feels that in his malcomparison to the
church, his last days will bring him glory. It seems the church has taught
him strongly that they were the truth. It had put so much on him that he
felt inadequate in its presence, and the things he did alone could never
measure up. However again, by doing his best, he could one day be washed
clean of his wrongs, where the Church would still sit and remain where it
has always been. It still leaves me wondering if it was the old and firm
ways of the church that built his tolerance, or if the church was something
that should have been avoided altogether. Leaving the church in an old
miasmal mist leaves me to believe at least that it will rot in its forceful
instead of helpful ways of old. There is, even more today than ever, a
strong forcing on people of almost every religion. If one would help the
hippo learn to get a mango, or help him/her reach it and pull it down for
him/her It may be viewed as a united source rather than a compared
opponent.

Adam from United States
Comment 14 of 31, added on November 12th, 2008 at 7:37 PM.

I think the Hippo represents the behemoth from the Hebrew's "Book of Job"
which is a holy figure to them. The last two stanzas make me think God
killed the Hippo, which the Hebrew people believed was the only person who
could kill the behemoth. When the behemoth dies, God would use it's skin to
build shelters for the righteous. The world the righteous are living in is
a horrible place, as said in the final line "Wrapt in the old miasmal mist"
so the hippo died so the people could live, but they'd rather be dead to be
with their God. He gave to them, even though they didn't really want it.
That's what I got out of it.

Michael from United States
Comment 13 of 31, added on October 10th, 2008 at 9:00 AM.

D poem have a striking sense which is Humour.There is a contrast between
the Hippo and d church.The contrast begins in line seven;'WHILE THE TRUE
CHURCH CAN NEVER FAIL'This poem is a satire and a praise poem.The hippo
represent the sgmple,sincere,strungling and hard working peaple.the church
is blind,hence d poet descria it as a miasmal mist.

Jacob owen from Nigeria
Comment 12 of 31, added on May 9th, 2007 at 9:51 AM.

definitly a poem open to interpretation. personally, i believe it revolves
around the idea that the Church is not prejudice and welcomes all walks of
life and is a very rewarding experience.

jackielee from Australia

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Information about The Hippopotamus

Poet: T.S. Eliot
Poem: 8. The Hippopotamus
Volume: Poems
Year: 1920
Added: Jan 31 2004
Viewed: 25966 times
Poem of the Day: Apr 2 2007


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