A Visual Guide to References in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922)

Digital illustration
92 x 122 cm / 36 x 48 inches

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 fragmentation and esotericism have always confused readers. Eliot coalesces references and quotes from diverse sources representing the landscape of human history and creation. These include Shakespeare, ancient Greek mythology, the Upanishad, 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. 35 years later, he said in a lecture: “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 infographic that identifies and classifies every single known direct reference in The Waste Land. Each rectangle represents one line in the poem, and each section of rectangles corresponds to one section of the poem. The intricate interweaving of references in the poem runs counter to the efforts of an infographic to aid learning in a visually powerful yet systematic way.

This work is currently on view as part of Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK, and will travel with the show to the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, UK in September 2018.