T.S. Eliot borrows the phrase “unreal city” from Charles Baudelaire's poem entitled Les Septs Vieillards (The Seven Old Men). Baudelaire called Paris the unreal city because it has no real civic life and is robbed of all the vitality of a throbbing, vital, common life.
Human beings seem like ghostly figures in this city. Baudelaire's Paris merges with Eliot's London and both then seem to merge with Dante's Limbo.
What is called unreal city?
To T. S. Eliot, London is the unreal city. It is ‘unreal’ because it is cut off from both natural and spiritual sources of life, and because it no longer has anything of its old sense of community. The city is “unreal” because life in it is lived entirely on the physical plane. In the city of London each individual exists in dull loneliness and the mass flowing over the bridge had no more human identity than river flowing under it. The figures in the crowd are like those in Dante's Limbo, who were never baptized, or those in the anteroom to Hell, those wretches who lived without praise or blame, leading a neutral existence.
The picture of its crowds of colour, masses of hollow men who are dead in the midst of living, flowing over London Bridge on the way to work, the slaves of time, each with his eyes fixed before his head, watching the next slip only make the poet exclaim, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” The crowd of people goes over London Bridge at nine o'clock which is the time for opening for offices and factories. It may be noted that the death of Christ occurred at the ninth hour of the day. It indicates that when business life begins, Christ is no more. So the city of London is unreal because the dwellers of the city are leading a kind of life which may be called “life-in-death”.