9/11 and T.S. Eliot

Six years ago, as the shock of 9/11 continued to set in on that day, I decided to go on a long bike ride in the Berkeley hills to clear my mind. Since the attacks happened early in the morning west coast time, most people like me stayed put and there was nothing else to do but devour CNN. At some point, that was too much and I had to get out of the house.

On my bike ride (it was a beautiful day in Berkeley, just as it had been in NYC before the attacks) through the strange magic of the brain, I thought of phrases in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — the “unreal city” and the “falling towers.” The throngs of people walking over the Queensborough Bridge to escape Manhattan reminded me of the “crowd [that] flowed over London Bridge” in Eliot’s poem. When I got to the top of Grizzly Peak, I could see the entire bay laid out before me, and San Francisco was safe and sound in the distance. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the tranquil city as much as I did that day. (Update: I took my camera with me that day. The photo below is SF on 9/11 as viewed from Grizzly Peak in Berkeley — click for the full-size version).

Below are the prescient passages from Eliot. In my mind, they will forever be associated with 9/11.

SF on 9/11

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


What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London


3 thoughts on “9/11 and T.S. Eliot

  1. Yes, I’m just reading the Waste Land for the first time, and just hit the uncanny ‘falling towers’ reference (and googled to find your comment). New York is kind of a ‘city over the mountains’ (Appalachians), though a shame it’s not included in Eliot’s list of cities!

Comments are closed.