I just finished teaching four weeks on The Waste Land. I usually try to mix up my texts from year to year, but one thing I've kept consistent is that I've taught this poem every year. And every year I discover new things in it as I shift focus from class to class. This year, my big revelation involved this section from "What the Thunder Said":
Who is the third who 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?
So without any attempt to be systematic or even particularly insightful, here's some notes on this passage.
1. Eliot tells us in his notes that this section is partially indebted to the encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Here at the end of the poem Eliot is preparing us to finally encounter the Hanging Man who was missing from Madame Sosostris's deck--a figure of renewal for Eliot, associated with dying-and-rising gods such as Osiris, Dionysus, and Jesus.
2. A telling difference here is that Eliot's risen god is spectral. In the Lukan account, Jesus walks and talks and breaks bread with the two disciples. He's physically risen and physically interacting with them. But in Eliot, the risen god can't even be seen directly. When the speaker counts (looking to his companion) he only numbers two on the road. It is only when he looks ahead that he sees "another one." Which is to say--the figure appears in his peripheral vision. It cannot be looked at, only glimpsed.
3. Another feature of this spectral redeemer is that they are androgynous. Eliot's speaker says "I do not know whether [they are] a man or a woman." Now, I've read this poem many times over the past sixteen or more years, and I'm not sure I've ever fully taken in what the speaker is saying here. The Waste Land is, among other things, about gender; Eliot even suggests that Tiresias, the prophet who transitions between genders (multiple times!) is the key figure in the poem. Now, Tiresias possesses the sexual characteristics, seemingly, of both genders ("old man with wrinkled female breasts"). This spectral redeemer isn't quite that, but they do exist in a kind of in-between space, neither man nor woman. I'm not quite certain what to make of this, but it seems to me now that Tiresias and this figure have a fundamental unity--not as strong, perhaps, as that between the merchant and the Phoenician sailor, but there all the same.
4. I want to make some sort of connection, too, between Tiresias and the Divine Hermaphrodite that some people see in the World card in Tarot, but there's something holding me back: namely, that Tiresias doesn't represent unity or renewal. On the other hand, this phantom savior does--one way of reading the final words of the poem is that Eliot posits a healing of fracture through union.
As I say, I don't mean to do anything here except lay out some very basic thoughts that have occurred to me through this most recent reading of the poem. The Waste Land is a tremendously rich text and always surprises me every time I return to it. One day I might even understand it.