by Eric Daryl Meyer
It just might be the case that T.S. Eliot beat me to my dissertation by about 90 years. Here is a poem published in 1920:
The Hippopotamus — T.S. Eliot
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,
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.
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,
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.
Eliot works out a fantastic reversal over the course of the poem. As Mary Midgley (whose book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature led me to Eliot’s poem) points out, we have a tendency to think about animals in their actual behavior and humans in their ideal behavior. Hippopotami are bloated, awkward, and fartsome, while human beings intone immaculate hallelujahs.
By the end of the poem, however, the rarified hubris of the pure Church has turned to an isolating fog. Building a community, or a spirituality on the principle of excluding the animal (whether one’s own human animality or the animal others whom we meet face to face) may also thwart God’s love, which bends to bodies as bloated and fartsome as our own.