Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The 'Potamus

The following is one of my favorite T. S. Eliot poems; it's a scathing satire of modern-day Christians. I've discussed it a bit in criticizing Donald Davidson's interpretation of it. The Laodicea reference is crucial to understanding the bite of the poem; the church of Laodicea, of course, was rebuked in the book of Revelation for being lukewarm, for thinking that what it had was good enough and that it did not need anything else, for believing that its prosperity was a warrant for not having to repent of anything. It was the one of the seven churches that thought it had everything and in reality had none of the important things. And if we are the church of Laodicea, the hippopotamus has a better chance at heaven than we do.

The Hippopotamus
T. S. Eliot

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.



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 kissed,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

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