A summary of one of Eliot’s quatrain poems – by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Hippopotamus’ is one of T. S. Eliot’s quatrain poems, written just after the First World War and published in his 1919 volume, Poems. By turns comical and serious, sincere and playful, high satirical and almost nonsense-like, ‘The Hippopotamus’ shows a very different T. S. Eliot from the one we glimpse in The Waste Land. It is even more interesting as a satire against the Church in light of Eliot’s later conversion to the Church of England, in 1927. You can read ‘The Hippopotamus’ here; below is our analysis.
The ‘quatrain’ poems which make up all but one of the English poems in Poems (the volume also contains a few poems written in French) were inspired by the French example of Théophile Gautier (1811-72), whose volume Émaux et Camées Eliot had been encouraged to read by Ezra Pound. The hard, sculptured feel to these quatrain poems was the result of Pound’s influence: this precise and controlled kind of poetic form was something which Pound thought Eliot could work with to good effect.
In summary, the poem is an extended comparison between the hippopotamus and the Christian church, both ‘weighty’ things, albeit in very different ways, one literal and the other theological. This argument, presented in polished quatrains rhyming abab, is offered in plain terms but we must not take it at face value. For, whilst the majority of the poem weighs up the hippo and the Church, with the church coming out on top, ultimately it is the hippo that ascends to heaven – despite its considerable bulk – while the Church remains on earth, apparently unworthy of a place in heaven after all.
Why? Because the Church is corrupt and out for its own ends, while the hippopotamus is innocent of such corruption. The hippo may be associated with laziness, lying in the mud all day; but it has a simple existence, trying to feed itself when it isn’t asleep. By contrast, Eliot tells us, the Church can sleep and feed itself at the same time. This is offered, on the face of it, as a virtue, but it is ironic – because others donate food and wealth to the Church, the implication is that the Church has done nothing to deserve such donations, and gives nothing back. The hippopotamus cannot reach the mango up on the mango-tree, but the Church can dine on exotic fruits from overseas because of its vast imperial power and its colonisation of other lands. This is presented as an argument in favour of the awesome might of the Church, but it leaves us feeling sorry for the hippo, and viewing the Church as rather greedy and exploitative.
Every one of T. S. Eliot’s polished quatrains has the same double-edged meaning, which is reminiscent of the speech from Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which ostensibly praises Brutus as an ‘honourable man’, but subtly and cleverly undermines this by drawing attention to the fact that the things Brutus has done, which the Roman people perceive as honourable, are actually anything but. Eliot’s ‘argument’ in ‘The Hippopotamus’, similarly, is deliberately offered to us as specious and flawed: the hippopotamus may be ‘merely’ flesh and blood, in contrast with the Church which was ‘based upon a rock’, but this line itself reveals the speciousness of the argument being offered. It’s an allusion to Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (16:18). The ‘rock’ on which the Church was founded was, in fact, a pun on the name of Peter – very much a man of flesh and blood.
At the end of the poem, the hippopotamus ascends to heaven while the Church remains here on earth – engulfed by the very same ‘miasmal mist’ that the hippo formerly sat beneath. Yet Eliot’s excessively comical images – of the hippo playing the harp, for instance – render the conceit ridiculous, bordering on the surreal. Any analysis of this poem must address this comicality: does it render Eliot’s ‘argument’ frivolous? Or does it underscore the extent to which the heavy, cumbersome hippo is still nevertheless more likely to be lifted up to heaven than the corrupt, grasping church?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.