The Hippopotamus by T.S. Eliot: Analysis & Summary

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

T.S. Eliot's poem 'The Hippopotamus' makes a comparison between a hippopotamus and The Church of England. This lesson will talk about Eliot's use of metaphor and satire in his poem. Read on to find out how he uses these literary devices!

The Hippo and the Church

Judging by the title of this poem, you wouldn't think it has any biblical significance, but 'The Hippopotamus' by T.S. Eliot actually expresses the author's negative feelings towards the Church of England. These emotions are seen through the use of metaphor, which is a direct comparison between two objects or ideas. In this instance, the comparison is between the Church of England and a hippopotamus. Eliot also uses satire, to present his ideas in a way that appears to be the opposite of his actual beliefs with the intention of poking fun at the subject. Initially, it appears as though the hippo and the Church are completely separate entities; the former is clumsy and flawed, while the latter is exalted and worshiped. As the poem progresses, however, we see that the hippo rises above the Church, literally and figuratively. It's at the end of the poem where we see Eliot's true feelings: He doesn't support the Church.

The Metaphor of the Hippo

photograph of a hippopotamus
hippopotamus

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker expresses that the hippo makes mistakes while it's living life or gathering food, but 'the True Church need never stir/To gather in its dividends' nor struggle to receive the fruits of pomegranate and peach' that 'Refresh the Church from over sea.' The hippo represents common people going about their daily lives and working for the food on their table. Conversely, the Church is always receiving money from its parishioners. Unlike the hippo, it doesn't have to work for its income.

The hippo, with all its flaws and innocence, eventually ascends to Heaven, leaving behind 'the True Church . . . below/Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.' What this line means is that the hippo can overcome its circumstances and reach an afterlife of value. The Church, on the other hand, will always be an earthly entity that remains corrupt and incapable of the type of innocence embodied by the hippopotamus. Eliot is likely implying that people who strive to be good individuals retain the possibility of going to Heaven when they die, while the Church and its corrupt leaders will forever be tied to the shallow materialism of this world.

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