The saddest pachyderm?


This fine drawing is by the Netherlands-based artist Redmer Hoekstra –

(see more of his work here:  and his web-page here)

As a friend of mine observed, the rhinoceros looks very sad – perhaps he is reflecting on the fact that being a boat and still having to walk seems the worst of both worlds.

Is the rhinoceros the saddest of all pachyderms? It is hard to think of a jolly one, certainly. They do have a naturally down-in-the mouth look – consider Durer’s:


But when it comes to sorrow, surely EV Rieu’s little hippopotamus takes the palm, though he is not in a drawing, but a poem:

The Hippopotamus’s Birthday

He has opened all his parcels

 but the largest and the last;

His hopes are at their highest

 and his heart is beating fast.

O happy Hippopotamus,

 what lovely gift is here?

He cuts the string. The world stands still.

 A pair of boots appear!

O little Hippopotamus,

 the sorrows of the small!

He dropped two tears to mingle

 with the flowing Senegal;

And the ‘Thank you’ that he uttered

 was the saddest ever heard

In the Senegambian jungle

 from the mouth of beast or bird.

I think that is an excellent demonstration of the power of poetry. On the face of it, it is absurd; a certain sort of adult would classify it as ‘nonsense verse’ and say dismissively that ‘it is meant for children’ – though it might give them pause to know that EV Rieu was a distinguished classical scholar, the initiator and editor of the Penguin Classics (to which I, like many others, owe my first acquaintance with the Iliad and the Odyssey).

But it is far from nonsensical, for all that its subject matter is a baby hippopotamus being given a pair of boots for his birthday – for me it captures perfectly a very particular set of emotions that many people will recognise at once: it is not simply that the present, which had promised so much, turns out a disappointment; it is the little Hippo’s poignant realisation that it was meant to please, so he should do his best to seem grateful.

And at the same time as being desperately sad, it is also very funny, as so many human situations are: ‘The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel’ as Horace Walpole observed; though here I would change ‘think’ to ‘see’.

Everything we are shown looks funny – Hippopotami, those rather moomin-like creatures; the trappings of the birthday party; the absurdity of (a) giving a pair of boots to a hippopotamus and (b) giving a pair of boots as a birthday present to a child (though perhaps some children might welcome them); and all this is backed up by the rhythm of the first six lines, which captures the near-hyperventilating excitement of the little hippo culminating in the huge exaggeration (which nonetheless expresses precisely the full undiluted strength of childhood emotion)

He cuts the string. The world stands still.

and then –

A pair of boots appear!

we do not know whether to laugh or cry.

The absurdity does not add to the pathos, it is essential to it. What is more ridiculous, more emblematic of futility, than an ill-judged present? It is not only the receiver who is disappointed; the giver too hoped for a quite different outcome, invested just as much joyful expectation in that moment of grand unveiling that went so sadly awry. There is no malice here: everyone has acted from the best of intentions, yet it has all gone amiss.

What lends this poem its depth – what makes it ring true, to my ear – is the complexity of emotion in the second verse. We are familiar with another image of childhood, the spoiled brat, who receives a perfectly good present and behaves abominably, screaming and throwing tantrums because it is not what was wanted; what we have here is more subtle. The little Hippopotamus has been well brought up: he knows not only what he does feel but also what he is supposed to feel – and the two are at odds; this is his initiation into the grown-up world, where we must weigh the feelings of others against our own.

And what is more agonising than the realisation that the disappointment you feel results, not from any spite or indifference, but someone’s sincere attempt to make you happy?

One thought on “The saddest pachyderm?

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