As part of this project’s celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth we now return to our serial performance of the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” When we last left off in the landmark poem’s concluding section, the narrator was seemingly alone in the dry waste land of the title. Some ambiguous creatures have been observed on the bleak landscape, but in this section the narrator reveals, and yet doesn’t reveal, who else is here.
Right as today’s piece begins, two more possible persons are introduced, yet never named. Besides the narrator, there’s someone they are speaking to, and what the narrator first says to this second is that the narrator senses there’s a third present. We are told nothing about the person the narrator is speaking to, but some mysterious elements of the third are stated.
Who are the three? Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. Critics and readers can provide plausible guesses, but their evidence is not determinate. I’ve always read the narrator in this section as being the poem’s author, the poet T. S. Eliot himself. Reportedly much of the poems final section was drafted while Eliot was hospitalized with what was characterized then as a “mental breakdown.” So, I’m going to call the narrator Eliot from now on. Who is he speaking to? As I said previously this month, the second could be the reader: you, me, us, those who have followed this fragmented journey from its opening memories of Europe before WWI through a series of disconsolate scenes and characters who speak in a variety of voices, and who seem both connected to immortal time and yet stuck in an inescapable post-war meaninglessness.
It could also be Eliot talking to himself, or part of himself, and since this second person is not described as mysterious, they seem well enough known to the narrator to not need any description or introduction — after all, when you talk to yourself, you don’t need to ask for an ID. And the third, the one that Eliot says he sees walking beside the other two? All we learn is that what they wear is non-descript, a brown hooded garment, and that Eliot can’t even tell their gender.
So, we don’t know, it remains a mystery. It’s been my experience in writer’s groups that elements like this will often be pointed out as errors, oversights or faults to be corrected. While this is a judgement made by fellow writers, I’m not sure if all (many? most?) readers feel the same in a case like this. That said, in performance, performers often feel they do need to have a working theory that they can tie their work to. And for me, I’ve worked here with the idea that the other two, besides the distressed narrator Eliot, are in an amorphous sense: us the audience, another element of Eliot, and our potential healing future aspects. That’s odd 3 into 2 math, but it makes sense emotionally to me. Other than one being known and the other unknown, there’s no real difference in this working theory between the second personage and the third, they are fractured into separate aspects from the first, the narrator. That fracture is partly why the narrator/Eliot is distressed, but that he can see these elements and begin to speak to them can be part of some level of reintegration.
Eliot himself said that he took the idea of a mystery third person materializing from a contemporary account of a remarkable adventure story: the Antarctic survival saga of Ernest Shackleton’s explorers party whose ship was trapped and destroyed in ice.* While trekking across his waste land, Shackleton had written that he saw an extra man helping with their load. Enough others have had similar visions that the phenomenon has even been given the name “The Third Man factor.”
Eliot and Shackleton. Third man not shown. Should I have looked for a picture of Harry Lime or Jack White?
Please don’t take this as a take-it-to-the-bank or make-your-grade definitive exegesis of this piece of “The Waste Land,” but instead as a thought, a suggestion, that in times of trouble you may be visited by that element of your future that wishes to heal you, and that creature will be hard to recognize as you express this internally or externally — for in our troubles we may believe there is no future, no future you or us. Let this third walk beside you, even if you can’t quite know them, or know them yet.
My performance of this part of “What the Thunder Said” from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” can be heard either with a player gadget some of you will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab or window to play it.
*Eliot probably learned of this from Shackleton’s own accounts published around the time Eliot wrote “The Waste Land.” I learned about the Shackleton story 22 years ago from a crackling-good hour-long radio documentary made by a former co-worker of mine, John Rabe, which I’ll link here. Note that Rabe’s documentary sums up the lesson many draw from Shackleton’s story then and now, that we can endeavor to survive unimaginable trials, and that we can survive.