The Hypertextual Waste Land


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets

Digital Modernism.  Where to begin?

Let’s begin at my first brush with the digital humanities, which coincidentally was also my first proper encounter with Modernist scholarship.

This is Rickard A. Parker’s hypertext project ‘Exploring The Waste Land, which converts T. S. Eliot’s magnum opus The Waste Land into a multiple-frame hypertext with extensive digital annotations.  The multiple frames allow the reader to view the original text in one frame while simultaneously accessing in separate frames the allusions, cross references, translations, critical commentary and so on that litter Eliot’s work.  For the undergraduate Modernist, approaching Eliot with terror for the first time, the Parker hypertext is a lifesaver.  For myself, newly alighted on the platform of the digital humanities, this hypertextual visualisation of The Waste Land offers an intriguing structural perspective on the poem itself.

The Waste Land, I believe, naturally translates into what we might call a ‘hyper-poem’.  George Landow defines hypertext as ‘text composed of blocks of text — what Roland Barthes terms ‘lexia’ — and the electronic links that join them.’  One can read The Waste Land as a mêlée of lexias, the links of which are tenuous and often deliberately suppressed; to convert the poem into hypertext is to enable these links.  What Parker has done here is to shore the fragments of the poem against not ruins, but a considerable database of annotation.  We experience Marie’s ‘Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt Deutsch’ in both its foreign quality and English translation at the same time.  We hold Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’ and Chaucer’s ‘When April with his showers sweet with fruit’ in simultaneous view.  The hypertextual Waste Land is at once incoherent and connected; the Fisher King might not be sure about whether he wants his lands put in order, but Parker has certainly made the attempt.

Dirk Van Hulle writes: ‘In many ways the experiments of the modernists prefigure literary aesthetics in the digital age. (…) Instead of representing or mirroring reality they tried to convey the experience of reality, resulting in complex studies of the ways in which human beings deal with time and space.’  In the Parker hypertext, Eliot’s experimentation with space and time coalesces digitally: for instance, the Xref function brings the three references to Unreal City, chronologically scattered across the poem, together in a separate frame.   Thus the collapse of the city, which in the linear text only appears in the third reference, is always-already present in the first city of the ‘brown fog of a winter dawn’.  In a way, the Xref function is helping to facilitate for the reader the state of cyclical time that the Waste Land itself is trapped in.    The hypertext offers an alternative way of reading the complex experience of space and time that Eliot creates in The Waste Land.

In a sense, the hypertextualisation of The Waste Land answers to a vision of coherence that the text itself seems to deny.  One doubts it would suit the vision of Eliot, who apparently grudgingly published his annotations so as to justify printing the poem as its own volume, and who later ridiculed his own notes in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ as a ‘remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship’.    While the hypertext offers guidance and direction, it can also restrict hermeneutical potential through the way its accompanying lexias try to unify the text along certain lines of interpretation – though the same can be said of the trends in the wider Eliot scholarship it draws its annotations from.

This is perhaps far too long as first blogposts go; I am but still feeling my way through the waste land of the web, and my hypertextual musings may be wide of the mark.  Perhaps one day, several posts down, I will arrive back at this first post with a heightened understanding of the digital humanities and – to borrow more of Eliot’s words – ‘know the place for the first time’.

The title image of lilacs is from Scribble City Central.




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