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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.
                  S. IGNATII AD TRALLIANOS
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read
also in the church of the Laodiceans.
1The broad-backed hippopotamus
2     Rests on his belly in the mud;
3     Although he seems so firm to us
4     He is merely flesh and blood.

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

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

 13   The 'potamus can never reach
14   The mango on the mango-tree;
15   But fruits of pomegranate and peach
16   Refresh the Church from over sea.

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

 21   The hippopotamus's day
22   Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
23   God works in a mysterious way --
24   The Church can sleep and feed at once.

 25   I saw the 'potamus take wing
26   Ascending from the damp savannas,
27   And quiring angels round him sing
28   The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

 29   Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
30   And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
31   Among the saints he shall be seen
32   Performing on a harp of gold.

 33   He shall be washed as white as snow,
34   By all the martyr'd virgins kist,
35   While the True Church remains below
36   Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.


Composition Date:
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).
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 first line of a famous hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800).
quiring: forming themselves in choirs or singing orders.
hosannas: Hebrew expression for "pray, save us" and adopted in English to mean a worshipper's cry of praise and love for God.
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.
Cf. Psalms 51.7: "wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."
kist: kissed (an archaic form).
miasmal: sickening or polluting (perhaps a reference to London's notorious smoke-fog).




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Thanks to Linda Corman (Trinity College Library) for her warm support of the Representative Poetry On-line project and Wally Brooker (University of Toronto Press) for granting publication permission of materials originally printed by the Press from 1912 to 1967.