Written by Walter De La Mare and published in 1912, The Listeners is a single-stanza poem of 36 lines, written in third-person. It projects an almost eerie aura as it tells the story of a traveller visiting a deserted location, yet the narration signifies that someone- or something- was there, quietly listening to him throughout.
The Listeners | Summary and Analysis
The Listeners | Summary, Lines 1-12
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
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.
The poem opens with the main character- the Traveller, along with his horse- knocking on a door in the late hours of the night and asking if anybody is there. There is no movement, except for a bird flying out of the house’s turret and over the Traveller’s head. The Traveller knocks again, but the lack of response causes him immense confusion.
The Listeners | Summary, Lines 13-20
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.
It is then that the ‘phantom listeners’ are introduced- hanging around inside the lonely house and listening to the strange voice from a different world. The poet describes the stillness of the house, the way the phantom listeners dwell among the moonlit beams. The only interruption of the silence is the Traveller’s call.
The Listeners | Summary, Lines 21-28
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
The focus then switches from the phantom listeners back to the Traveller, who feels the strange, rather eerie aura, coming from inside the house that would not answer his exclamation. His horse continues to munch on the grass under the night sky as he tries one final time to get a response, knocking loudly on the door. But once again, he hears nothing. Therefore, he simply asks the silence- or to whomever may be listening- to tell ‘them’ that he had come, had kept his promise, but nobody was there.
The Listeners | Summary, Lines 29- 36
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.
The ‘listeners’ do not move, nor do they make a sound- the Traveller gets no indication that he may have any audience at all. But as the poem draws to a close, it is revealed that his words were heard by the ‘one man left awake’ inside the house- presumably a supernatural being or a spirit. It is left open for interpretation. The ‘man left awake’ does not break the silence himself- he just listens as the Traveller mounts his horse and gallops away.
The Listeners | Analysis
Walter De La Mare was well-known for his eerie and darkly romantic writing style, often centered around death, ghosts or spiritual elements. The Listeners touches upon these components through themes of loneliness, solitude, and interpretable supernaturalism. The third-person narrative provides scope to switch between the two main characters’ situations- the Traveller and the ‘phantom listener’. The purposeful vagueness of the piece provides room for interpretation, but the use of certain words, refrains and illustrious phrases anchors the reader to a certain direction– here, that direction being an aura of strangeness and melancholy. The poet uses strong imagery to create sinister, dark depictions. The description of the ‘phantom listener’ and the ‘man left awake’ leads to a slight vagueness which adds to the intended peculiarity of the piece. An important aspect is the almost open ending to the poem– we do not know why the traveller has arrived at the house, nor whether the listeners are spirits or ghosts or people, nor what the Traveler’s promise was, and we do not find out. But the illustrious account, which paints a clear picture in the readers’ minds, opens a door for an expounding of themes and an openness to mysterious emotions.
The poem begins with a setting of the scene and situation– the Traveller, knocking on a door and saying, “Is there anybody there?” The phrase ‘moonlit door’ signifies that it is nighttime, and the horse chewing the grass of the ‘forest’s ferny floor’ paints the image of a deserted house in the middle of the forest in the darkness. With the very name ‘the Traveller’ and the accompaniment of a horse, we can see that someone has journeyed to this destination, looking for someone. The poet employs imagery from the very beginning, using subtle detail rather than direct information to describe the scene- for example, saying that the bird ‘flew out from the turret over the traveller’s head’ is a rather roundabout but effective way of describing the building. The readers now know that it has the turret. The picture of a single bird flying out of the house and over the travellers head also builds up a tense expectation of what is to come.
The Traveller then ‘smote’ or knocks on the door a second time, as there was no answer the first time. This lack of response is a key point in this poem. Note the refrain, as he once more asks “Is there anybody there?” We get a better understanding of the surroundings as well as the Travellers’ appearance within the next few lines-
“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.”
This is an intelligent slipping-in of finer attributes to a broader plot– the poet takes the opportunity of explaining the silence to describe the ‘leaf-fringed sill’ and mention the Traveller has grey eyes. He also makes the readers aware- for the first time- of how the Traveller feels in this situation- confused due to the lack of answer, and ‘still’ which signifies the edginess that comes from a strange, deserted surrounding.
We are now introduced to the other side of the coin: the phantom listeners. The poet says that they were the only ones listening to the Traveller as they ‘dwelt in the lone house.’ The use of the word ‘lone’ signifies that the house was, in fact, otherwise empty- it raises the question about the phantom listeners. The name itself suggests a supernatural element- rather than just ‘listener’ or ‘quiet person’, why mention the word phantom? This is what leads the readers to believe it may be a sort of spirit or ghost that lurks the house. This is further reiterated with the next line: “To that voice from the world of men.” The suggestion that the Traveller’s voice comes from a different ‘world’ altogether may signify the separation between the earthly world and the supernatural one.
As the lines continue to depict the phantom listener in the empty house, listening to the traveller’s call, we see the highlighted theme of loneliness and solitude come to fore. In the line “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”, the phrases ‘empty hall’ and ‘lonely Traveller’ do more than just stir the emotion of the poem- they add to the overall tone, calling attention to one similarity between the Traveller and the phantom listener, though their paths do not cross more than this: they are both alone. The phantom listener, dwelling about the empty, dark house and the Traveller, journeying through the deserted forest. These elements set a mysterious and unpredictable mood to the piece.
Following this, we can see that the Traveller starts to feel the ‘strangeness’ of the silence. This is more than just feeling confused or awkward because he receives no answer- the ‘strangeness’ shows that he can feel the presence of something unusual. It is different from not receiving a response because nobody is there- the Traveller may sense the phantom listener, but would not clearly know the reason for this strange feeling.
It may be this inexplicable knowledge that there is something peculiar– whether it is able to respond or not- listening to him, that inspires him to leave his final message despite the absence of any acknowledgement or answer: “‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, That I kept my word,’ he said.” The interesting thing about this dialogue is that we receive no further explanation on who ‘they’ are or what the ‘promise’ is. It ties into the fact that this poem did not start at a specific beginning of a story- we do not know who the Traveller really is, why he is journeying, where he is heading. It simply starts with a knock on a door, which is an unexplained midpoint.
The Traveller’s loud voice and knocking does not receive a response, as is expected by this point. However, the introduction of the phantom listeners, as well as the traveller’s unknown promise and the other-worldly imagery, form an ominous feeling in the reader. They do not know what exactly is happening, nor do they know what will happen next, but there is a rattling sensation caused by unanswered questions in peculiar situations. “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”- this phrase ‘echoing through the shadows’ is significant here, because it suggests that somebody is listening. The ‘shadows’ may symbolise the supernatural listener, while “least stir” means there was no reaction, indicating that this phantomic presence, despite hearing everything, is unable to respond. This assumption only grows stronger with the line “the one man left awake.” Here, we may draw the inference of a spirit or ghost of sorts– the man ‘left awake’ may be the soul of one who previously lived in that house and was left to roam within its confines after the living being passed away, hence the term ‘left awake.’ A restless dwelling of an unpeaceful soul.
That phantom listener heard everything till the very end- the poet describes the “foot upon the stirrup, And the sound of iron on stone, and how the silence surged softly backward, when the plunging hoofs were gone.” signaling that the traveller had fulfilled his purpose, mounted his horse, and departed. We may assume that the Traveller’s journey to the house was to meet someone to whom he had promised something- possibly a return, or a reunion. However, the eerie silence he received in response signifies the emptiness of the area- either that person has left and moved on, or passed away and his spirit occupies the place he once lived. The latter seems more accurate due to the use of various supernatural vocabulary, dark imagery and descriptions of peculiarity.
The poet’s multiple depictions of silence, still air and deserted area creates an air of loneliness. We may assume all of these elements to be symbolic of the same– on further interpretation, it could be the loneliness of a soul after death. Another point to note is that the Traveller’s continuous calls were simply screams into a vast silence, which can signify great solitude- the feeling of speaking into nothingness, of nobody responding. Of being ignored by even those who hear the voice and the refusal to engage in a conversation. The desolate location also highlights the feeling of isolation– the house being in an obsolete place with seemingly no other civilization, the lone bird flying over the Traveller’s head. There is no clear explanation as to the Traveller’s purpose, but as he gallops away at the end, we cannot shake off the feeling of melancholic abnormality and wonder at this mysterious, almost one-sided interaction. Rather than an answer, we are left with more questions and a strong, emotional unnaturalness.