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

For my third and last visualization for my poetry class (I’m skipping the second one until I figure out a way to properly document it), I focused on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In tackling one of the most mind-boggling and mind-numbing poems that I have ever read, I decided to take a decidedly rational approach, taking inspiration from infographics/data visualization. Here is a (really lousy) thumbnail of my work and a link to the full resolution PDF version, and also a write-up that I did for the Visual and Critical Studies department blog that should explain the concept behind the infographic quite clearly.

Click here to download the PDF version!

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 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. 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 analyzingThe Waste Land.

I enjoyed working on this very much. It was tedious but strangely invigorating – it took me 4 hours to identify all the references based on footnotes in my Norton Critical Edition of the poem and other research, and to plan out the classification on an Excel sheet. Then it was another 12 hours slaving away on Illustrator and tweaking the layout, colour scheme, etc. I am extremely excited to work on an entire series of such infographics, and I think it fits my thought processes very well. I might even want to get them printed and sell them as limited edition posters. Eventually, if I manage to persevere with many more data visualizations, I’m hoping they would become increasingly complex, thus charting my own progress.

One issue that has been on my mind regarding this project is whether it should be considered “Art” or “Design”. Honestly, there isn’t a point in defining them, but for the sake of pedantry: if I decided to choose the “Art” route, I needed to infuse it with a certain conceptual complexity, and the irony of trying to chart something that didn’t need to be charted; if I decided to choose the “Design” route, I would have to be very specific about the technicalities of my layout, as well as the ease with which my chart conveys information. Yet, not only are all of these characteristics are important, but I really am approaching this with the naivete of just-wanting-to-chart-a-certain-text-because-I-feel-like-it-can-be-done. Not all texts will have this certain quality; I definitely don’t want to chart something for the sake of charting it. I will chart it because its content, its style, its structure, speaks to being charted.

Anyway, let me end off this unnecessarily long post by listing the improvements that I would need to make to this infographic to make it “print-ready”:

1. Reformat the entire thing from 36″ x 48″ to 24″ x 36″, which is a much more manageable size in terms of printing and selling (but would perhaps diminish the grandeur of it and force me to crowd the whole thing with text.)
2.  Fix all the kerning (e.g. the line numbers)
3. Add a copyright/credit line for myself
4. Improve on the colour scheme to make it more differentiable
5. Make more space for the margins
6. Fix any alignment issues.

P.S. I want to make this go big on the internet. This needs to happen.



  1. to 1: downsize the text? you’ll be surprised how tiny fonts can go and still remain read-able to most people. legend can be smaller definitely too.

    to your P.S: Go make it happen (:

    • i think the legend is that big to fill up space, because of the format of the lines. because the 1st and 2nd sections are a lot shorter than the 3rd and 4th sections. but i’ll just keep working on it when i have time. i’m too lazy now haha

  2. yen

    i’ll buy one. my van gogh poster just dropped off last night, so i have a place on my wall waiting for this right now.

    • it’ll take a while for me to print this haha. i don’t really know what i want to do with it yet in terms of what size to print it and tweaking the design. and also depends on when i get started on the series.

  3. Pingback: ‘The Waste Land’ Infographic: Updates « brainkids

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