Throughout his presentation of London and its citizens, Eliot creates a tremendous and oppressive sense of inertia and stagnation. He evokes brilliantly both the literal wasteland which World War One left and also the profound spiritual dissatisfaction which many at that time felt, as well as the need for a rebirth or resurrection.
The first words of this section; ‘Unreal City’ convey perfectly the sense of awe and even dread with which Eliot views London life. There is something incredibly intense and surreal about this opening, which leads fittingly on to images of hell, war and dissatisfaction.
It is clear that Eliot thought much of life was going nowhere, with people, like water, moving but never reaching a true destination or conclusion: ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge’ and he links this image in a dream-like way to Dante’s reaction to the dead in limbo:
‘So many, It had not thought death had undone so many’
That the people Eliot is describing are actually not dead, makes this all the more haunting, as though London life is actually a living death. In fact, because Dante was talking of those who even in life had never really experienced anything, Eliot also conveys a chilling sense of dissatisfaction and isolation, with no-one ever really connecting to those around them:
’Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.’
Into this bleak vision of loneliness, the brief excitement of recognising a face in the crowd ‘There I saw one I knew, and stopped him crying “Stetson!”’ is abruptly and disconcertingly wrenched into surreality again. With the incongruous words ‘You who were with me in the ships of Mylae!’, both through the rather awkward and Latinate construction of the sentence, and through the reference to an ancient battle of 260BC, we leap into the past without any explanation. This image does, however, link to the First World War and the camaraderie which sprung up between strangers fighting among the trenches. In a shockingly casual tone, the speaker then goes on to say:
’That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout?’