‘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?’


T S Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

Amid the existential agonies of T S Eliot’s long and dauntingly bleak poem, ‘The Waste Land’ is a curious passage describing two people who are attended by an invisible companion.  Eliot clearly states that he is unsure about this person’s identity;  the apparition comes across as mysterious if not slightly sinister, wrapped in a hooded mantle and gliding silently up the ‘white road’.

What does this phenomenon, now known as ‘the third man’, have to do with Sir Ernest Shackleton?  In Eliot’s own words, just about everything.  A footnote to his poem explains:  ‘The following lines were stimulated by the account 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.’


Sir Ernest Shackleton

It was on the Endurance expedition, as they were attempting a desperate crossing of the island of South Georgia, that Shackleton and his two companions, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, had the strong sensation of an unseen figure at their side.  Unlike Eliot’s portrayal, it seemed to be a benign guiding presence, offering a glimmer of reassurance when hope was almost lost.  None of the men commented on it at the time, choosing to focus instead on tackling the treacherous mountains and glaciers that stood in their path.  Only afterwards were they surprised to discover that they had all had the same experience. 

 n ‘South’, his book about the expedition, Shackleton explained:  ‘When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia.  I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.  I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”  Crean confessed to the same idea.  One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech”* in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.’


Frank Worsley

Tom Crean

Many modern-day explorers have sensed an unseen presence or ‘third man’ accompanying them in times of crisis.  However, at the time of writing, Shackleton was brave to admit as much as he did.   In his biography of Frank Worsley, John Thomson explains that, in 1916, the idea of an ‘extra person’ guiding the way was not well documented, and Shackleton’s revelation attracted a great deal of attention.  Scepticism was inevitable, and opinions still differ about what the men actually experienced.  One of Shackleton’s biographers, Roland Huntford, suggests that severe dehydration was causing the men to hallucinate.  He writes:  ‘Delusion hovered in the air.  Shadows seemed like ghosts.  They imagined unseen companions by their side.’  

But both Shackleton and Worsley were quite clear about what they had felt.  Worsley wrote:  ‘There was indeed one thing about our crossing of South Georgia, a thing which I have never been able to explain.  Whenever I reviewed the incidents of that march I had the sub-conscious feeling that there were four of us, instead of three.’  Tom Crean, although he never committed his memories to paper, told his friends the same story. 


South Georgia, captioned ’One of the glaciers we crossed’ in Shackleton’s ‘South’ (1919)


Leonard Tripp, Shackleton’s agent in New Zealand, recalled being present while Shackleton was dictating his book, ‘South’, to the writer Edward Saunders.  As he recounted the journey across South Georgia, Shackleton puffed on a cigarette and paced restlessly up and down;  sometimes the emotion was so great that tears rose to his eyes and he would have to leave the room for five minutes to compose himself.  Tripp wrote:  ‘…when he came to his sensation of a fourth presence, when crossing the mountains, he turned around to me and said, “Tripp, this is something I have not told you.”’  Later, whenever Tripp praised Shackleton to his face, Shackleton would stop him by saying quietly, ‘I am not entitled to all the credit.’

 Eliot’s poem was published in October 1922, but Shackleton had died in January of that year.  Shackleton could therefore never have known that his epic journey had inspired the passage, but as a lover of poetry himself he would no doubt have been interested and perhaps even honoured.  In one way, however, I feel that he differed significantly from Eliot:  although he had often experienced utter despair, Shackleton would have instinctively leant away from sustained pessimism.  Frank Wild, who had been with Shackleton on all his Antarctic expeditions, described him as ‘the most undefeated and unconquerable man I have ever known’;  his friend and biographer, Hugh Robert Mill, reflected that ‘his determination always rose highest when most opposed.’   Quite simply, for Shackleton, all things were possible.  As he once said, ‘I do not like to set any limit to the bounds of human endurance.’


*Quote from Keats’ ‘Endymion

RSGS is offering two Shackleton-themed ‘Discovery Days’ on 26th and 27th May.   Visitors will learn more about Shackleton’s life, and hear about his connections with Scotland and RSGS.  On display will be rarely-seen photographs, maps and artefacts which are a lasting testament to Shackleton’s spirit.  Tickets are available from Eventbrite.



Reference and quotes:


T S Eliot, Collected Poems (1930)

Sir Ernest Shackleton, ‘South’ (1919)

H R Mill, ‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ (1923)

Roland Huntford, ‘Shackleton’ (1985)

John Thomson, ‘Shackleton’s Captain - A Biography of Frank Worsley’ (1999)

Frank Worsley, ‘Endurance - An Epic of Polar Adventure’ (1931)

Michael Smith ‘An Unsung Hero - Tom Crean, Antarctic Survivor’ (2000)


Photos of Shackleton, Crean and South Georgia by Frank Hurley, from Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic (‘Endurance’) expedition of 1914-17.  Photo of Worsley by unknown photographer.