Timothy H. Smith: On "The Waste Land"

An Unwelcome Oasis: The Misguided Attempt to Remake The Waste Land for iPad Readers


Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

But there is no water

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Touch Press, whose digital offerings include a survey of the solar system, a catalogue of gems and jewels, and a beefed-up periodic table, has released an interactive version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for Apple’s iPad. And so far, both critics and consumers have welcomed the company’s first literary foray. In its first week, the application was the highest grossing in the app store, becoming the “US iPad App of the week,” and reviewers have celebrated the product. Self-proclaimed “philistine” Shane Richmond of the Telegraph calls it “stylish” and “an essential for your iPad,” while more “literary” reviewers argue that it improves a Waste Land experience. One says its “various ways of approaching the text are enticements to the multiple readings that make a full appreciation of the poem possible” (Saavedra). Another maintains, “The multimedia does not detract, it enhances, and gives reading an intimidating poem the joy of exploration, of discovery” (Fussner).

Yet Touch Press’s treatment of the poem remains problematic for several reasons. The designers advertise their hope to “extend the reach of Eliot’s greatest work, bringing a depth of understanding and sensitivity to poetry in the digital space,” but the app benefits no audience significantly. Among other issues, the caterings toward new readers will not add anything to an academic’s relationship with the poem, and the esoteric annotations sometimes guide too strictly a beginner’s reading. Moreover, while The Waste Land’s interpretive challenges might have made it seem hospitable to elucidative features, the additional materials often cheapen the fundamentally elusive text. Touch Press’s app may be charming in some ways, but it certainly is not the “absolute delight” (Beale) most have deemed it. My hope here is to show that ultimately the app instantiates Huckleberry Finn’s claim that “overreaching don’t pay.”

At its core, The Waste Land for iPad reads like any other e-book. It preserves what Touch Press calls “the typography and integrity of the original,” as published in 1922. But the application distinguishes itself from other digital versions through its “wealth of interactive features,” most of which offer interpretive assistance or address the poem’s historical significance. The application’s interactive notes, its copy of The Waste Land manuscript, and the video commentaries provided by Paul Keegan, Craig Raine, and Jeanette Winterson constitute the features I consider “elucidative.” Touch Press asserts that its notes, which are silently appropriated from B. C. Southam’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, address Eliot’s allusions comprehensively, and one would be hard-pressed to disagree. For the title page alone, Touch Press provides three annotations, variously addressing the title, epigraph, and dedication. The notes attached to the poem’s five sections then appear just as regularly, with almost one annotation per line. A copy of the poem’s manuscript next allows users to see, through Ezra Pound’s edits, what the final draft accomplishes poetically.

The more “reflective” features explore the poem’s cultural impact. Video commentaries from Seamus Heaney (poet), Fiona Shaw (actress), and Frank Turner (musician) discuss Eliot’s influence on music and literature. A gallery of images provides, among other things, a cultural backdrop, displaying Eliot’s hometown (St. Louis) and eventual workplace (London), as well as some key figures in Eliot’s life (Pound and Valerie Eliot). Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance of the poem and audio readings from T. S. Eliot, Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, and Viggo Mortensen—all synchronized to the text—then round out the suite of features. For those initially reading The Waste Land or returning to it after a long absence, some of these additions might prove valuable. Touch Press’s references to other works of art, for example, may give users unfamiliar with Eliot’s style or with modernism generally some avenues into the difficult poem. Allusions to Eliot’s influence on Bob Dylan, as well as suggested analogies between his abstract lyrics and Eliot’s poetry, could increase Dylan’s fans’ patience for the text. Similarly, the inclusion of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon might clarify the poem’s basic form and function for those more experienced with the visual arts. This is a conclusion one must draw independently, however, for the caption simply reads, “Picasso was a contemporary of T. S. Eliot’s, active as a painter during the same period that Eliot was writing.”

The application’s presentation of the major debates surrounding The Waste Land could also improve a beginner’s experience. While Touch Press may not satisfactorily address the poem’s structure, the commentaries from Fiona Shaw, Paul Keegan, Craig Raine, and Jeanette Winterson together offer a solid critical introduction, demonstrating how Eliot’s poem both necessitates and benefits from different points of view. The discourses addressed, contested since 1922, concern the poem’s tone, as well as its relationship to the cultural temperament of the 1920s.

Touch Press first presents the question whether The Waste Land is, as Calvin Bedient explains, “a poem, as many have thought, of despair? Or a poem, as others have believed, of heroically attained salvation? Or, as still others have suggested, of something in-between, something baulked?” (ix). Shaw claims in one of the app’s briefest videos that the poem ends on a positive, calm, and uplifting note, and elsewhere her tranquil performance of the concluding section corresponds with her commentary. Yet Jeanette Winterson argues otherwise in her video, saying “it’s very bleak,” and Ted Hughes’s restless reading matches her take. Then Eliot himself, reading in 1947, suggests another possibility, indicating a sort of tonal ambiguity through a neutral affect.

Now a quick look at the poem’s critical history illustrates that such divergences regarding the tone have been common. One quiet voice in the Times Literary Supplement suggested that The Waste Land might concern “heroically attained salvation” in the first review ever published: “Life is neither hellish nor heavenly; it has a purgatorial quality” (Brooker 77). But as Lois Cuddy and David Hirsch note, this reading fell mostly on deaf ears until Cleanth Brooks shifted the critical consensus with his 1939 essay, “Critique of the Myth,” which argues that Eliot’s poem is optimistic, depicting presently hellish conditions while suggesting how redemption might be gained later. Before then, most saw the poem “as an expression of negation, futility, and despair over the emptiness of life after World War I” (Cuddy 1). J. C. Squire called it a continuous “state of erudite depression,” and Edmund Wilson highlighted that “nothing ever grows during the action of the poem and no rain ever falls. The thunder of the final vision is ‘dry sterile thunder without rain’” (Brooker 115, 85). And, as evidenced by Winterson’s comment, pessimistic interpretations persist today, even if most critics now gravitate toward optimism. One of the app’s key advantages, then, is that it introduces beginners to a historically significant line of debate.

The application’s video commentaries also address the poem’s relationship with World War I. Paul Keegan suggests that a widespread post-war distress, which Eliot also experienced personally, manifested itself in Eliot’s writing. He claims that The Waste Land includes “forms of tepidity or unfeelingness that suggested some malaise that might be collective but was also specific to Eliot.” Winterson agrees, adding that Eliot purposefully tried to create a work reflecting his contemporaries’ anxieties. She says Eliot “was not in any way an unconscious thinker”; rather, he was so attuned to the contemporary culture and reader reception that he “could hear the grass grow, he was so keen.” According to her, Eliot understood precisely both the sentiment he was communicating and the atmosphere in which he was publishing. 

However, Craige Raine’s commentary suggests Eliot’s style actually had little to do with any post-war malaise. Pointing to Pablo Picasso’s early twentieth-century art, he explains that the ‘“modernist aesthetic” developed before World War I even began. Regarding Eliot specifically, Raine alludes to Pound’s saying of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that “Eliot has modernized himself” back in 1914. And given that The Waste Land has been called a “gradual progression” of “Prufrock,” featuring “more of the ‘overwhelming question’” (Bedient 4-5), one could easily argue Eliot was not primarily addressing wartime atrocities. Perhaps he was actually exploring contemporary issues separate from war, such as failing human relationships in an increasingly materialistic society. Historically Eliot’s critics have addressed all these possibilities, so, again, users gain quick access to a major critical debate. I. A. Richards argues that the poem expresses the “plight of a whole generation” (278), while Alan Marshall points out the following:

Eliot rejected this kind of acclamation in the most withering terms: “When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.”…[The public] identified with the poem too readily. (95)

John Soldo adds that Eliot could have been responding to any number of influences, including “an unhappy marriage,” “a congenital hernia,” “literary aspirations [that] were yet to be fulfilled,” or a teaching job that was “exasperating” (21). Although the app may not provide this much detail, it does give readers a basic rundown of the discourse.

Unfortunately, other features, such as the annotations, could cheapen a beginner’s experience. Perhaps users could avoid the paratextual notes, but it seems unlikely that an inexperienced reader struggling through oblique references and multiple languages could resist the temptation of efficient “elucidation.” And the problem with any seemingly innocent glance at the notes is the following: in addition to suggesting a “correct” way to read the poem, “comprehensive notes” can also disrupt the flow of the reading experience.  

The note explaining the dedication illustrates perfectly how annotations can detract from the The Waste Land: it briefly outlines Ezra Pound’s role in the modernist movement, his personal relationship with T. S. Eliot, and his editing of The Waste Land, as well as the fact that the epigraph is not actually taken from Dante’s Commedia but from Pound’s reworking of a Dantean phrase. Undoubtedly the explanation there of Eliot’s allusion to an allusion (dedicated to the writer of the first allusion, no less) could overwhelm or distract a reader who has not yet even reached “April is the cruelest month.” Even the less weighty annotations could hamper the reading experience, such as a literal description of where Margate is, for then users wonder why Eliot was ever there anyway. Almost invariably, simple questions blossom into larger ones, and the questions provoked by the app’s notes are not often conducive to an improved Waste Land experience. The fact that a note exists to explain that “Mrs. Equitone” is not an allusion and needs no further explanation should suggest how overboard Touch Press has gone.

Yet some critics have argued that elucidative materials such as these are integral to understanding the poem. Elizabeth Drew argues the following: The ugliness, the emptiness, and the aimlessness of the contemporary world…cannot be clarified without the study of external sources….Before [The Waste Land’s] intensity can be fully appreciated as an experience of poetry, the intellectual background has to be absorbed and the logical links explained. (59-60)  Drew feels that annotations such as those in the app are necessary because Eliot’s “range of reference is so wide, and to most readers so unfamiliar” (59).  However, her argument that Eliot’s poetry must “tell us something” or it will not establish “a coherent whole of feeling and attitude” (60) fails to acknowledge that incoherence and bewilderment can constitute a feeling and attitude. Similarly misguided is her belief that “it is a justifiable ambition to want to know what the poet is feeling and what he is holding an attitude towards” (60). It is obviously difficult to discuss anything done purposefully in any work of art, but one can reasonably conclude that the multilingual passages and esoteric allusions in the poem serve a function that immediate translation and explication mitigate. One critic even suggests that the poem is ultimately “about” the “fantasy of interpretation” (Ross 134).

William Pritchard offers a more reasonable stance on how elucidative materials affect readings of The Waste Land, drawing an important distinction between the notes Eliot added to the poem and the “scaffolding” critics have added: “Eliot’s notes, if not taken too seriously, are harmless and sometimes amusing. But other sorts of notes or glosses adhering to the poem…can be more insidious, more inhibiting to responsive, creative reading” (333). Annotations only exist, he adds, due to “an editorial anxiety to fill in the blanks which the poem so carefully does not fill in” (333). Ultimately paratextual notes are not actually integral parts of the piece or even useful to beginning readers. Pritchard points out that Wyndham Lewis once said of Ulysses, a work that greatly influenced The Waste Land, that “no one who looks at it will ever want to look behind it” (334), and the same applies to Eliot’s poem, where forays into the poem’s depths distract readers from the surface’s wonderful subtleties.

A clever argument might be made that an awareness of allusions further fragments the poem in a way that coheres with its disjointedness, but such a stance too heavily deemphasizes the poem’s unique effects. Certainly The Waste Land loses something when focus moves from the text to the paratext, for miniscule explications interrupt the poem’s progression and divert readers’ attentions from Eliot’s measured musical sense. As Pritchard explains, “What we need to work at instead is keeping the poem moving, paying attention to the sequence [of voices]”; annotations that readers “store untroubled in the mind and then read on” do not add much to a reading, only disrupting “the voices in motion that make up the poem’s substance” (335, 333). 

And though Pritchard was writing decades after Drew, their differences in opinion cannot simply be attributed to critical shifts over time, for F. O. Mathiessen argued similarly in The Achievement of T. S. Eliot in 1935. Therein he maintains Eliot was right in believing “that ‘poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ That is to say, it can work upon the ear the depth of its incantation; it can begin to stir us by its movement before our minds say what it is that we feel” (84). Mathiessen points to the sensuous opening passage of “A Game of Chess” and explains that, while the allusion to Shakespeare undoubtedly helps “heap up an impression of Renaissance splendor and luxuriance” (85), the passage operates successfully without knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra. He argues that a “sensation of magnificence” arises simply through this passage’s “beauty of sound” and “richness of connotation” (84), so a “proper” experience with the poem requires no knowledge of Eliot’s intellectual background. He implies there a shared belief that notes only water down The Waste Land, diluting the experience for beginning readers. 

A little ironically, commentaries in the app reiterate this point. Seamus Heaney remembers in college having to read The Waste Land as if it were a textbook, learning and regurgitating the interpretations of his professors before teaching those same ideas himself a few years later. He recalls, “I never had the experience of being alone and a little bewildered and then coming back to and being excited by and getting to know on one’s own the poetry.” Then he concludes that one should not read it “under the eye of the instructor” before “sufficiently attending to the strangeness of the thing itself.” Meanwhile, Winterson claims that any attempts to make The Waste Land approachable necessarily lessen the poem’s effect, as “the only thing Eliot is interested in is the whole experience.” She explains, “You read it out loud. You read it six times. And it means what it means. There are no shortcuts.”

The other major problem for Eliot beginners using The Waste Land for iPadis its lack of a basic biography. Many new volumes of poetry include chronological outlines of poets’ lives and works, oftentimes with added historical context, but all Touch Press includes are sparse details in captions throughout the app’s image gallery.

For those a little more experienced with the poem, a couple commentaries might merit inclusion. Jim McCue’s video explores The Waste Land’s publication history, as he highlights some differences between its publication in Criterion and The Dial, saying they reveal that another version of the poem was floating around in the early 1920s. McCue also discusses how Virginia Woolf made errors in The Waste Land’s first English publication in book form, writing, “A crowd flowed under London Bridge,” rather than over. His brief but insightful commentary shows how the seemingly simple process of publication can prove quite colorful—a useful fact for budding critics to remember.

Intermediate readers should also appreciate a perspective regarding the poem’s obscenities. One of Craig Raine’s commentaries draws attention to the fact that people tend to overlook the eroticism of Eliot’s poem because its sex scenes are so desolate. He compares D. H. Lawrence’s and Joyce’s struggles to get published in the ’20s to the public’s easy acceptance of Eliot’s poem. Raine believes Eliot shows a darker side of love than either Lawrence or Joyce and suggests that prudish audiences are more willing to stomach unpleasant depictions of sexuality. His commentary thereby inspires reflections on what constitutes “appropriate literature” and why.

The readings and the performance included in the app could also enhance an intermediate reader’s appreciation of the poem, although some people who feel that readings necessarily involve interpretations might argue that they restrict an audience’s understanding. Many critics maintain that “the lurking possibilities of mistaking [a passage’s] direction” (Pritchard 336) constitute one of The Waste Land’s key features, so users might be better off without any of the readings. Finding the central voice of the poem to be “universal and dislocated,” these critics want to focus on “the volatile surface intensities of language” (Pritchard 336), rather than force interpretation in any particular direction. Even individual voices, Harriet Davidson suggests, may resist categorization:

[The voices range] from vivid characters such as Marie, the hyacinth girl, Stetson’s friend, Madame Sosostris, the nervous woman, the pub woman, Tiresias, and the Thames daughters, to the non-human voices of the nightingale, the cock, and the thunder, and the voices from literature in the many allusions in the poem. The many abrupt changes and mutations in the voices of the poem often blur the proper boundaries between identities, further increasing the reader’s confusion about who is speaking. (126)

But any solely dismissive stance on readings or performances certainly seems misguided. A more reasonable view might hold that they bring new insights to the application’s users, revealing “lurking possibilities” readers might not consider on their own.

One might even argue that the various readings in the app actually delimit interpretive possibilities more than they constrain them. As Davidson points out, a “reader’s interpretation, like any desire for order, is really just another proliferation of possibility, not at all a stabilizing of the poem” (126). When Eliot does not “feign congestion” in the Madame Sosostris passage and Fiona Shaw “does an admirable stuffy nose” (Fussner), users see that the speaker could be either involved directly in the action or merely overseeing it. And other divergent readings function similarly. As Pritchard might conclude, the application’s readings together illustrate that “a variety of responses, most of them cogent and relevant, will prove The Waste Land to be a work eminently hospitable to divergent ways of reading it” (336). Eliot’s offering two largely different readings himself should be support enough for a claim concerning multiple readings’ utility.

Sadly the application also has two huge flaws for intermediate readers. First, Touch Press includes no list of significant publications suggesting where readers could pursue further inquiries, and the video commentaries feature no citations at all. The relatively shallow analyses among most of the commentaries are also problematic. The application ignores what Colleen Lamos calls “a curious twist of literary history,” where “recent critics of The Waste Land have returned to the questions that concerned its initial readers, before its elevation to the status of a classic” (109). While one of the app’s commentaries does briefly allude to the disapproving early criticism of John Crowe Ransom and others, nowhere does Touch Press suggest that any negative views persist today. Ignoring the more controversial problems regarding Eliot’s sexism, anti-Semitism, and classism, the app glosses over many critics’ seeing the poem as a “rather tarnished literary icon…now primarily of interest for precisely the errant tendencies that were previously corrected, explained away, or ignored” (Lamos 108). Further, no discussions of his religious sense appear, and no commentaries examine The Waste Land’s effects on philosophy, literary criticism, or social studies. The app will greatly dissatisfy anyone hoping to begin exploring Eliot’s work more seriously.

For serious Eliot scholars, the application’s benefits are clearly the fewest. With the app, there may be “no more need for multiple paperweights and broken book spines while you prep for your teaching or draft an article on The Waste Land” (Gray), but this is probably worth less than the $13.99 price tag. The shallow commentaries certainly will not teach experts anything new, so the app could only benefit them as a potential source of commentary. Somebody might like to examine, for example, how the app features such a variety of functions, perspectives, and foci that it ultimately retains and expands the elusiveness and nuance of The Waste Land itself.

Obviously, like intermediate readers, serious scholars are also disadvantaged by the lack of citations, but the app’s facsimile might pose an even bigger problem. The inclusion of only a partial scan of the manuscript must bewilder anyone who has encountered the manuscript in its fully published form. For The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts represents far more than a poet’s initial scribblings and a few of his contemporary’s suggestions. It is a poem largely distinct from the one published in 1922. The draft is twice the length of the final text, and its order is entirely undecided and random, aside from the portions labeled “He Do the Police in Different Voices Part I and II” (later sections I and II). The conclusive “What the Thunder Said” originally appears in the middle of the poem, followed by several largely autobiographical pieces that disappear entirely in the final draft, excepting a few transplanted lines. Pound tells Eliot in a letter that “the thing runs now from April…to shantih without a break,” so portions titled “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” “Song,” “Exequy,” “The Death of the Duchess,” “Elegy,” and “Dirge” get the axe.

But regrettably, Touch Press presents almost none of this information. The narrative section placed before “April is the cruelest month” does not appear in the app, and the formerly disorganized pile of fragmented poems is reorganized into its recognizable order. Each of the sections removed by Pound is excluded entirely, which is unfortunate because Touch Press explains that Pound wielded great editorial powers but then fails to demonstrate his greatest triumphs. Without a typed version next to it, which the book form provides, the facsimile pages included in the app are also essentially illegible. Of course one can discern what Eliot has written, as an ordered Waste Land now exists as a published poem, but Pound and Vivienne Eliot’s scribbles are almost impossible to make out. As this addition clearly cannot be for the poem’s serious scholars, the fact that new users cannot read the collaborators’ comments makes its inclusion seem a poorly executed afterthought—and probably the interactive poem’s weakest feature.

So the app can neither offer much to Eliot veterans nor give those just starting the poem an ideal introduction, while intermediate scholars are better off exploring libraries and journal collections. Max Whitby, co-founder and CEO of Touch Press, expressed a hope in a February 15, 2011, press release that the app would “bring a profoundly important subject to the attention of a new digital audience and make it come alive in their hands,” but he failed to recognize that The Waste Land never died and needs no infusion of vitality. Interested readers have sought and will continue to seek out the poem in its original form, and while The Waste Land for iPadcan boast of some innovative features, it cannot ultimately claim to be a reinvigorated or livelier version of the poem. Readers interested in either beginning The Waste Land or supplementing their present understanding should seek an alternative path through the wastes.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. Print.

Beale, Rachael. “Review: The Waste Land iPad App.” Futurebook.net. Bookseller, 13 June 2011. Web.

Bedient, Calvin. He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. Print.

Brooker, Jewel Spears. T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Cuddy, Lois A., and David H. Hirsch. Critical Essays on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Print.

Davidson, Harriet. “Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 121-31. Print.

Drew, Elizabeth A. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950. Print.

Fussner, Nora. “Those Are Pearls that Were His iPad.” Electricliterature.com. Electric Literature, 29 June, 2011. Web.

Gray, Will. “Review: The Waste Land iPad App.” Worthwhile.com. T. S. Eliot Society, 8 August, 2011. Web

Lamos, Colleen. Deviant Modernism: Sexual and Textual Errancy in T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Marshall, Alan. “England and Nowhere.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 94-107. Print.

Matthiessen, F. O. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1935. Print.

Pritchard, William H. “T. S. Eliot.” The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 319-42. Print.

Richmond, Shane. “The Waste Land iPad App Review.” Telegraph.co.uk. The Telegraph, 15 June 2011. Web.

Richards, I. A. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961. Print.

Ross, Andrew. “The Waste Land and the Fantasy of Interpretation.” Representations 8.1 (1984): 134-58. Print.

Saavedra, John, Jr. “An eBook for Young and Old.” Words-in-gear.steampunkpublishing.com. Steam Punk Publishing, 29 June 2011. Web.

Soldo, John J. The Tempering of T. S. Eliot. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Research, 1983. Print.


Title Timothy H. Smith: On "The Waste Land" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Timothy H. Smith Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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