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?

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


Who is the third that walks always 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?

The first of Eliot’s allusions is from Matthew’s Gospel 24:13.
However, he combines in with another allusion that holds entirely separate signification from the biblical register making a composite image of sorts which tries to pull the reader in 2 different directions at the same time but cannot manage to do so because the contradictory terms of the allusions make only one of the sources at a time. First then we have, the allusion to Matt 24:13 and the story of “The Road to Emmaus

The third who walks beside the desolate apostles refers to two diametrically opposed sources. The first is the Road Emmaus from Luke 24:13-28:

Now that very day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.
They were talking to each other about all the things that had happened. While they were talking and debating 1 these things,
Jesus himself approached and began to accompany them
(but their eyes were kept from recognizing him).
Then he said to them,
“What are these matters you are discussing so intently 4as you walk along?” And they stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him,
“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t
know the things that have happened there in these days?”
He said to them, “What things?”
“The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene,”
So he said to them, “You foolish people-
how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!
Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

they urged him, “Stay with us, because it is getting toward evening and the day is almost done.” So he went in to stay with them. MATT: 28:27

Eliot begins the section in a manner evocative of the movement in “What the Thunder Said” Eliot begins his tail or his allusion with the period of time right after Christ had been crucified. After Christ has passed away the apostles had no idea what to expect: from the authorities, from God, or form their fellow Romans—who had just supported the murder of an innocent man by crucifixion. So in this period of time await his promised return, his life after death through water and his sacrificial blood. They Apostles are still uncertain what to do and who to trust and do not even recognize their master who has risen as promised. So there is an element of comfort to these lines, that Christ is there with his people regardless of them taking notice o him one notices him or not, he is always the 3rd that walks beside any two people. referencing the tri-partite god as well who is the 3rd? the 3rd could be God and this all 3 or the third could be the spirit who walks with us etc etc—the point being that the theme of the poem is God’s presence in the temporal realm as a reassurance to man is prevalent.
I suppose I never knew why I felt so creeped-out by this passage until I read, in their entirety, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton expeditionary group’s diaries and journals. In the group’s recounting there was a mission where the the team was stranded, and dying of starvation, dehydration, and exposure. While they attempted to reach a point where they could be rescued they began to experience peculiar phenomena.
As they attempt to traverse the white road, they recall repeatedly seeing one more member of the team than should have been left alive. So the “White Road” serves as double-grounding both scenes—for Emmaus it is the White crystalline Matthew describe. while the road Shackleton’s team walked was a snowcapped torment in other ways sand of both these allusions from a single referent. The journals presents the contending perspective that the 3rd person in Shackleton’s case must not have been anyone. At most, nothing more than a projection of anxieties and traumas everyone addresses at certain times in their lives and which they all dealt with during those long days.Shackleton’s Discovery Expedition Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition

Even if these experiences were nothing more than a series of hallucination brought on by a conditions in which every member of the team was either already deceased or near death and the emotional trauma/and despair tied up in those situations are powerful. Such Emotional pull was, I believe, Eliot’s ultimate goal and he captured some truly profound human feeling and experiential relation in The Waste Land. No passage stands out as better articulating the paradoxical poles emotional and rational though can drive the self toward. In his presentation of these 6 or so lines, Eliot’s allusion clearly directs us to at least 2 sources psychical and psychological trauma. The other: a more deliberate, if incidental self-will to believe only that which empirically confronts us which are in diametric opposition. I think understanding the poem and especially allusive fragments like this are aided by embracing the the paradoxes Eliot himself was working towards in his own life: contemplation of the divine, and how that is held in tension by our limited experience of the divine or a notion made manifest only through some level of caprice.

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