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The Hippopotamus -- Oliver Herford

Adding to our regular army of hippopotami...
(Poem #844) The Hippopotamus
 "Oh, say, what is this fearful, wild,
 Incorrigible cuss?"
 "This *creature* (don't say 'cuss,' my child;
 'Tis slang)--this creature fierce is styled
 The Hippopotamus.
 His curious name derives its source
 From two Greek words: hippos--a horse,
 Potamos--river. See?
 The river's plain enough, of course;
 But why they called *that* thing a *horse*,
 That's what is Greek to me."
-- Oliver Herford
There's something about hippopotamuses that appeals to writers of humorous
verse, particularly children's verse. Whether it's the comical aspect of the
beast itself, or the delightfully long and euphonious word 'hippopotamus',
or both, the fact remains that the beast has worked its way into a number of
poems, ranging from Carroll's [1]

   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!"

to Flanders' bold hippopotamus on the banks of the Shalimar[2], and almost
always for comic effect.

Today's poem is a pleasant if not outstanding example of the genre. The
punch line works - though the 'Greek to me' line loses a bit from having
been done to death - but the poem itself does not really rely on it for a
make-or-break effect. The poem is instead cheerfully and trippingly humorous
throughout - indeed, my favourite bit is the parenthetical admonishment in
the third and fourth lines. And, as some of the best children's poems are,
it is (almost as an afterthought) educational as well - if you didn't know the
etymology of 'hippopotamus' you do now <g>.

Biographical Snippet:

  Oliver Herford (1863-1935)
  English-born American poet, illustrator, and wit; published over 50
  volumes of light verse and prose
        -- Poets' Corner
        http://www.geocities.com/spanoudi/poems/poem-gh.html#herford

  In the United States an older generation of humorists somewhat
  of the upper-class Punch style lingered briefly after World War
  I. Of such were Oliver Herford, whose Alphabet of Celebrities
  and other comic verses with pictures were published as small
  books; Peter Newell, whose highly original Slant Book, Hole
  Book, etc., had a sharp eye to late prewar costume, and Gelett
  Burgess, whose Goops for children were spaghetti-like little
  figures whose behaviour illustrated a moral. (See Burgess,
  Gelett.)
        -- EB (which had no entry on the man himself)

Links:

[1] poem #265
  (Does anyone read Sylvie and Bruno these days? Painful in places, but
  worth at least one readthrough, IMO)
[2] [broken link] http://timothyplatypus.tripod.com/FaS/hat_hippo.html

And the other hippo poem we've run on Minstrels: poem #124

-martin

20 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Alon Bernstein said...

A brief etymological note -- the Hebrew word for hippopotamus is "soos ye'or", meaning "horse of the Nile". "Hippopotamus" is much more common in everyday Hebrew though. Great poem, by the way.

Oren.

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