T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: an infographic by Berny Tan

Last semester, VCS student Berny Tan created a detailed infographic about T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land as part of an assignment for Gregory Donovan’s Visuality in Poetry class. Today’s post features the piece, along with a written description that Berny prepared to accompany it. The infographic is immediately below, followed by her text. (You can click on the image to open up a much larger zoomable version.)

Here’s Berny’s text:

Although T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land remains one of the best known and most representative poems of the Modernist period, its intentional fragmentation and esotericism have confused readers since it was first published. Eliot coalesces references and quotes from diverse sources representing the landscape of human history and creation. These include but are not limited to the plays of William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and Purgatorio, the operas of Richard Wagner, ancient Greek mythology, the Bible, the Upanishads, and even colloquial dialogue from his first wife and their maid at the time.

When the poem was first published in a book, Eliot included pages of notes in order to increase its bulk. He identified many but not all of these references, which have since led many scholars to track down and read too much into a poem that was written to elude meaning. He would say in a lecture 35 years after the poem was written: “I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.”

As a tongue-in-cheek nod to this, I created an information graphic that identifies and classifies every single known direct reference in The Waste Land. This was inspired by intricate data visualizations that I have seen in person and online in the past few years, and based on the aesthetic of 1930s Isotypes (International System of Typographic Picture Education) by Otto Neurath. Each rectangle represents one line in the poem, and each section of rectangles corresponds to one section of the poem. I created a classification system, and assigned each reference in the poem between 1-3 categories out of 11. These correspond to a certain color, which are reflected in the color of the rectangles in the graph itself. Finally, I labeled all the references as specifically as possible.

In general, an information graphic conveys a linear, systematic, and rational way of perceiving something. It aims to enforce a visually powerful and easily understandable model in order to aid learning. Yet, in this case, the intricate interweaving of references in the poem runs counter to it. The graph purports to be a kind of study tool, but this in fact contradicts the complex and bewildering experience of reading the original poem. The categories are arbitrarily assigned and very debatable. The representation also fails to represent cross-stanza and cross-section reference links.

Nevertheless, there is something to be enjoyed about conducting this relatively scientific and non-literary analysis of one of the great Modernist works. This was actually inspired by one of my favorite books, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, in which the author acknowledges every reference within the text itself rather than as accompanying notes. I hope to create more infographics in future, including one on A Lover’s Discourse, and perhaps also devise other methodologies for analyzing The Waste Land.

Visual & Critical Studies