The dark wood, wind whistling through the trees, the lone traveller and the seemingly deserted house. These are the typical ingredients for a classic, ghostly tale, and so it
is with Walter De La Mare’s ‘The Listeners’. It’s a poem that we studied at
school and that has stayed with us over the years, the questions the poem poses
remaining infuriatingly unanswered. We can remember staying awake at night
pondering the relationship between the Traveller and the listeners of the ‘lone house’. Why did the Traveller come? What was the promise that he made? Why did he arrive late?
Perhaps the Traveller promised to take the listeners somewhere, away from something? He swore that he would see them safely to their destination, that he would act as a guide, but despite his best intentions he arrived late. He was unavoidably detained and he knew his journey to the house would be futile, but he had promised, afterall, and he was a man of his word, trustworthy. He arrived at the house and called out, first in hope, ‘Is there anybodythere?’ and then through frustration, and annoyed at himself, he ‘smote the door’, and yelled,
‘tell them I came…that I
kept my word.’
Others have suggested that the traveller is in fact a ghost, possibly because of his ‘grey eyes’, and that the listeners belong to the real world, or that we, the readers, are in fact the listeners and that the Traveller is trying to make contact with us. However, there seems to be too much evidence to the contrary. The occupants of the house are described as ‘phantom listeners’, and that they
‘stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:’
Also, when the Traveller leaves, his horse makes the very real, physical ‘sound of iron on stone’. Whatever the truth, one thing is clear, the poem resonates and leaves you wanting to know more. It nags at you, draws you in and forces you to revisit the text. It causes the hairs on your neck to rise, it sends a chill slowly down your spine
and it is eerily engaging. The dark forest in the dead of night, the ‘lonely’ traveller, the knocking on the ‘moonlit door echoing through the shadowiness of the still house’.
The attraction of this poem lies in not knowing who the characters are. We are told nothing of the ‘phantom listeners’ and very little detail about the Traveller. We know that he’s a ‘lonely Traveller’, that he has ‘grey eyes’ and that he is ‘the
one man left awake’, but that is all. We also know nothing of the events prior to
the Traveller arriving at the house, and we are left eager to know what happens
once the Traveller has left, ‘once the plunging hoofs were gone’.
As English Language teachers, we often ask our students that if they could ask a famous or historical figure to dinner, who would they invite and what questions would
they ask? So, that’s settled then! Walter de la Mare, you are cordially invited
to attend dinner at Henry Towers where you will be asked endless questions on
the subject of your poem ‘The Listeners’. I do hope he comes.
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.