The Hippopotamus by T.S. Eliot: Theme & Literary Devices

Instructor: Crystal Hall

Crystal has a bachelor's degree in English, a certification in General Studies, and has assisted in teaching both middle and high school English.

'The Hippopotamus', a poem by T.S. Eliot, demonstrates a comparison between the innocence and truth of the hippopotamus and the hypocrisy and corruption of the Christian church.

Tipping the Scales

'The Hippopotamus' is a poem included in T.S. Eliot's third literary publication, a poetry collection simply called Poems. Written in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, the poem uses satirical humor to compare the Christian church to a hippopotamus.

Author of

Although Eliot's views of the church were quite serious, he uses this poem to poke fun at Christianity and, perhaps, at his own personal feelings toward the religion. In the end, the hippopotamus is the victor in the balancing act, making the journey to Heaven while the church remains left behind.


The predominant theme in this poem is religion. Eliot eloquently compares the existence of the Christian church to that of the hippopotamus. Both are bulky masses, but while the hippopotamus' weight is literal, the Church's weight is metaphorical. Hippopotamuses are simple, honest creatures; they find their own means of survival and support their own weight while the church, Eliot says, is basically handed its living by donors. Eliot compares the innocence of the animal to the corruption of the Church.

'The hippopotamus' day

Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;

God works in a mysterious way-

The Church can sleep and feed at once.'

Literary Devices

One literary device that is prominent throughout 'The Hippopotamus' is satire. Eliot's skepticism and sarcasm, while intertwining humor within the verses, are apparent as his feelings toward Christianity as an organized religion are firm and without question. His image of a hippopotamus playing a harp is both funny and ridiculous, which is how Eliot viewed the Church.

Irony is also present as Eliot contrasts the Christian church, whose dedication is supposed to belong solely to God, with that of the hippopotamus. He makes the point that the animal's existence simply revolves around sleeping and eating, and the animal is more deserving of Heaven.

Simplicity is a literary device that is present throughout the entire poem. 'The Hippopotamus' is only nine stanzas in length, which creates a more basic read for its audience. While other poems contain more material, this particular poem is short and sweet, so to speak. It says what it means, and it means what it says, which makes the bigger picture clearer and more concise.

It is also written as a quatrain, which is a poem that is written in clusters of four-line stanzas; this literary device makes the poetry more exact and more controlled. It keeps the words from flying off the page in order for the reader to better understand the material through a cleaner, more precise style of writing. The alternating rhyming lines of a quatrain lend a smooth, lilting, lyrical flow to the prose.

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