5. Anecdote v. Image

Unreal City

Eliot's initial invocation of the "Unreal City" proceeds in two phases. The first presents the urban landscape as one of meaningless surface flow in order that the second might offer, where poetic anecdote might suffice, a dialectic of visionary death and ascension. The "Unreal City" is first declaimed following Madame Sosostris' warning, "Fear death by water":

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought that death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.[52]

The liberatory cry of the poet of "democracy en masse," "I am afoot with my vision," appears in The Waste Land as a paradigm of isolation and blindness: "each man fixed his eyes before his feet." Seeking to wrest the poetics of the city from Whitman's accretive catalogue of people, places, and trades, Eliot scripts a melodrama within which the visionary muse plays the part of lady in distress, marking time, imprisoned in the superficiality of the crowd, and sullied by the dreary flow of working men over and water under London Bridge.

As the stanza continues Eliot comes to the rescue, planting his own and his reader's excitement in the possibility, and the possibility denied, of poetic ascension:

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: "Stetson!
"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
"Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
"You! hypocrite lecteur!-mon semblable,-mon frère!"[53]

From "the flat," Eliot's tropes abruptly turn, leaving behind the images of flowing London. Every implicit movement becomes emphatically vertical: "corpse you planted," "begun to sprout," "bloom," "dig it up again." Where Madame Sosostris had seen "crowds of people, walking round in a ring," an effort is made to resurrect the hierarchy of Dante's Divina Comedia in a modern world of pure extension. But in becoming vertical, the tropes of movement in Eliot's Inferno assume a quality denied them in the original: they become dilatory. The dominant mode of representation is no longer one of here and there, but of presence and absence, blindness and insight. Instead of descriptive details, ironies proliferate throughout The Waste Land, emptying, filling, and emptying again the claim to poetic omniscience, a claim which will be recapitulated when the Unreal City is next invoked to introduce Tiresias who, "throbbing between two lives," "can see at the violet hour." Like Tiresias, Eliot does not promise transcendence. But his poetics are visionary nevertheless, still oscillating upon Emerson's "axis of vision," and placing the blame for its belated dialectic of ascending presence and descending absence squarely upon the peculiar flows and soils, upon the twentieth-century surface, of the "Unreal City": "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?"[54]

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