The third who always walks beside you

Who is the third who always walks beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together.

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman –

But who is that on the other side of you?

– “What the Thunder Said”, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot

Eliot’s note on these lines reads as follows: The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.

From Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica by John Harrison:

[Frank] Worsley‘s account has no affectation, he says what he saw: ‘Each Step of that journey comes back clearly, and even now I find myself counting our party – Shackleton, Crean and I and – who was the other? Of course we were only three, but it is strange that in mentally reviewing the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves.

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