Who is the third who walks always beside you?

from T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land on Rap Genius

Meaning

In his “Notes” on the poem, Eliot says that he took this idea from the explorer Ernest Shackleton, who reported that a mysterious being appeared, walking alongside his group, during his journey through Antarctica. People sometimes report this phenomenon in moments of peril.

The line is also often read as referring to the Road to Emmaus incident in Luke 24:13-35, in which two disciples on the way home bump into the risen Christ and don’t recognise him.

The critic Harold Bloom, who has consistently argued for The Waste Land as being inspired first and foremost by Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” links this line with a passage from “Dooryard”:

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions…

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