Friday, 4 October 2013

'The Listeners' - A Brief Interpretation of de la Mare's Poem

‘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.
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.

Walter de la Mare’s well-known poem is set in the dead of night, and tells the story of a traveller’s arrival at a house in the wood. The poem is composed in a simple four-line masculine rhyming scheme. The majority of lines end with a punctuation mark, such as a comma or a semi-colon, keeping a steady tempo. The poem is written in a very basic style, with no stanzas or metre. This means that it is much more accessible for children, so that it can be read in the style of a story, but is also open to deeper scrutiny from adults.

The traveller is depicted ‘knocking on the moonlit door’. This generates an eerie tone, and implies that something mysterious and supernatural is about to take place. The light of the moon is cited repeatedly throughout the poem – perhaps the writer hopes to convey the idea that the phantoms thrive from moonlight, or indeed are components of the moon. The idea of the ‘turret’ directly suggests darkness yet again. It persuades the reader to imagine a high tower projecting a large shadow over the doorway, thus encompassing the traveller in absolute darkness.

The juxtaposition of the words ‘silent’ and ‘champed’ immediately introduces a contrast, as the onomatopoeic word ‘champed’ suggests the sound of eating. This implies that the noises of the horse are alone in their disturbances, and that it is the only sound to be heeded. This is accentuated again by the alliteration in the words: ‘Of the forest’s ferny floor;’ the repeated ‘f’ sounds symbolising the horse’s chewing.

Imagery is used throughout the poem in order to present the hosts as ghost-like, chilling entities. The word ‘descended’ suggests floating and feather-like falling; this is the initial suggestion of the supernatural. This imagery is sustained by the employment of the words ‘phantom listeners’, again introducing the concept of ghosts. The writer uses an inversion in the line: ‘Never the least stir made the listeners.’ Although this may have been done to retain a steady rhythm, it is also possible that the inversion was employed to alienate us even more from the phantoms, emphasizing the fact that they are from a different world, and thus normal language does not comply with them. The phantoms are made to seem yet more alien and eerie by the use of the phrase ‘that voice from the world of men…’ This imagery of ghosts continues to be prominent throughout the poem.

De la Mare’s use of the word ‘host’ when referring to the phantoms implies two things. Not only does it suggest that there is a large assembly of listeners, but it also indicates that they are (or were) the owners of the house, and are therefore the hosts. Perhaps de la Mare intended to present these listeners as the residents, who had, somehow, perished.

A contrast is introduced by the juxtaposition of the words ‘quiet’ and ‘voice’. As these two words are placed so near to one another, it almost implies that the voice from the traveller was a weak, hushed voice, and that he is barely heard above the silence. The writer then employs a paradox in order to accentuate the silence of the phantoms, perhaps to reiterate their role as observers, rather than participants, in the world of men. He writes: ‘Their stillness answering his cry…’ Obviously stillness cannot be a response, as it is not a sound, and is in fact the reverse. Therefore it highlights the immense silence and stillness of these ghost-like figures.

The writer uses a significant number of words to underline the desolate and lonely atmosphere, such as ‘lone’ and ‘empty’. This is a simple method to add to the eerie and haunting atmosphere, making it a more chilling poem to read. There are also countless words to suggest darkness and gloom, such as ‘dark’ and ‘shadowiness’. Again this makes the poem more ghostly. De la Mare writes: ‘Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair…’ The use of the word ‘stair’ here immediately sends a chill down the reader’s spine, as it can be taken to have a double meaning. When it is read aloud, the reader will visualize a pair of eyes staring with contempt. The idea that one is being observed, especially when alone, is indeed particularly evocative.

The dialogue in the poem sustains the reader’s attention and interest throughout by making the story seem more immediate and real. This has two effects: it is made more gripping, and therefore it is also made more chilling to the reader, as the story becomes more plausible. Furthermore, de la Mare makes use of sibilance in the second last line, the crux of the poem, when he writes ‘…the silence surged softly backward…’ The repeated ‘s’ sound is perhaps imitating whispers. The listeners have been silent during their contact with the world of men, but as the traveller draws back, they begin to murmur to one another. This is indeed an unnerving idea. The sound also suggests contempt, as it is associated with the snake, the animal that represents evil.

This poem is an excellent example of what is known as evocative supernaturalism. The author’s use of words and rhetorical devices evoke the spooky and supernatural atmosphere, without really asserting the truth of the paranormal, other than the mention of phantoms.

At first glance, there is no obvious purpose or hidden meaning to the poem, and indeed T.S. Eliot said that it was ‘an inexplicable mystery’. There are two possible explanations for the existence of these phantoms. Perhaps, as many people believe, the proprietors of the house died from the bubonic plague (a valid explanation considering that there was no knowledge of their deaths, and that the whole family died). Another less likely explanation is that the traveller himself was a ghost. This explains his inability to attract the attention of those inside, and can also explain his reason for being there – perhaps he is caught in a limbo-type state, still holding moral obligations in the real world.
Nonetheless it is clear that Walter de la Mare’s intention was to unnerve the reader, and it is undeniable that he has succeeded in doing so. The combination of rhetorical devices and use of particular words enabled him to create a supernatural and indeed paranormal atmosphere that was prominent throughout the poem. Perhaps that was his only aim – to keep the reader awake at night!


  1. Very good.

    I'm never convinced though by claims that alliteration ever means anything. It's the sort of thing we were told when reading poetry in school (e.g. "the repetition of the hard consonant 'g' emphasises the harsh environment", or, as in your case here, "the Fs sound like a horse eating". Does a horse eating really make an F sound? Or is more like a scrunching C or K, or a sipping S? You could probably make the case that almost any letter sounds like almost anything.

    I remember talking about this with one of my favourite university lecturers and he basically with me on this - in 99% of cases alliteration is probably just used either coincidentally (obviously 12 repeated Fs would be deliberate, but there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet and 2 in a row could easily happen), or simply because it sounds good, rather than to signify anything.

    If you want to show that you recognise the alliteration (which from an exam perspective is probably a good idea) you could just say that it draws attention to the line.

  2. I completely agree - to be honest, I had to put it in to please my English teacher(!) I suppose that is a good way to get away with it - however I do think that the sibilance does sound like whispering!

  3. Hi can you explain this line of the poem listeners?
    Leaned over and look into his grey eyes.
    thanks my e-mail is

  4. Hiya! I think the image of a strange head (only a head!) leaning out the window is simply meant to be quite ominous and scary! And again his grey eyes simply make it seem more ominous - I don't really think the line is particularly symbolic.

  5. Thank you so much for the well constructed info I'm an English teacher and I'll use it to inform a lesson..

  6. why can't the poem have a more complex meaning?what you all discussed is ists outer meaning..what about its deeper mening?de la Mare wwould not have simply written the poem like a story,it must be having soething in it I think.

  7. why can't the traveller be considered as our inner voice which warns us many times,to which we pay no heed.we are the ghosts who just listen to the traveller.As promised,he came and warned us,but it is we who did not pay any heed.
    Can't this be another interpretation??

  8. I think that was de la Mare's intention - the poem can be interpreted however the reader wants to see it! But I don't think it has a specific and absolute meaning; it's open to opinion. However, there is definitely a danger of reading too much into it!
    Thanks for commenting, and feel free to respond!
    Tom x

  9. I have just finished reading de la Mare's biography - very detailed - and in it it says that he gave no meaning to the poem. Made up a story once to quieten some fans who were pestering him but the truth was - it has no hidden meaning.

  10. I thought so! I've studied the poem intently and couldn't find any deeper meaning or symbolism - I think it was just intended to scare people and be a fun poem to read! Not every poem or story needs to have a meaning or a moral!
    Thanks for commenting!

  11. I do but i dont
    Thats what i would say if u asked me whether i liked this poem or not
    The way de la mare writes is excellent and being a huge fan of good litrature i believe this poem is worthy of note
    But why why in the name of god did he have
    to leave it unexplained

  12. I'm very wary of the term 'unexplained'. I don't think you can call something unexplained if there is no explanation. Consider this: some paintings are beautiful because of what they tell us about human nature or the natural world; others are beautiful simply because they are aesthetically pleasing. I personally think de la Mare's poem is excellent, but only because it is pleasing to read. Not all poetry needs a deeper meaning.

  13. i'm reading and discussing this poem with a Yr 6 class after the half term break
    It's a poem that has alway intrigued me, I agree it's fun and scarey at the same time
    my thoughts on the reason why he is there - is this - in the days of old it was believed that you could sell your soul to the devil
    Did the traveller do this in a card game that took place in a kind of 'Jamaica Inn' atmosphere? Obviously not mumbling his words!

  14. I suppose that's always a possibility!

  15. Like many of us have tried to do at one time or another, he's trying to go home. But he can't.

  16. Replies
    1. ye all don't seem to be able to see for looking. it is as plain as plain can be the rider is son who has promised to come home with a big fortune, but arrives too late - his parents are dead. Very sad poem. That's the long and the short of it.

    2. I'm afraid I don't agree. How do you know he is the son? And how do you know he has a big fortune? Moreover, if your interpretation is right, to whom does he refer to when he says "tell THEM I came, and that no one answered." I assume your interpretation would say that he was addressing the phantoms of his family, but then who are "they" if all his family are dead?

    3. Thanks for your answer. I did not think it merited an answer, it is my first time sending a message as I am new to computers. I came across that poem in my child's school work many years ago and I really liked. I was at home on holiday recently and I went to visit my cousin who lived in a farm house. the home of my aunt and uncle who died a few years ago. My cousin was out working in the land and the door was left open. I went in and waited for him to come in from the fields. I felt very sad as I had spent many a happy day there with my aunt and uncle. The statue of Our Lady was still on top of the dresser and the Sacred Heart Picture was still on the wall. Time was running out in me and my cousin had not come in but I had to leave. Looking at the statue of our Lady and then at the Sacred Heart picture I said "tell them I called". I firmly believed they would be told because I am a Catholic and I believe in the communion of Saints.

  17. What's up Tom? - have you decided (a) that I am not worth a reply? or (b) that I have cracked the code and therefore can have the Last Word on the matter?

    1. Sorry you're marked as 'anonymous' so I can't tell which comment is yours?

  18. what do you feel about the way the poem ends, leaving the reader with so many unanswered questions about whats going on? why do you think the writer did this?

    1. I reckon de la Mare is just trying to convey a sense of fear at the end, as suggested by the "silence" that takes over at the end.

  19. why do u think de la mare left the poem unanswered?

    1. I wouldn't say it is necessarily "unanswered" but perhaps it is ambiguous. He is just trying to create a sense of fear and ominousness, really.

  20. A really interesting poem. Thanks for writing your analysis on it - I couldn't find many poetic devices but I am well informed and very intrigued now.

  21. A bit late :) but I was reminded of this poem when recently re-reading de la Mare's 'All Hallows' which is a discussion on how the decay of faith leaves empty spaces that can be filled by other things (in this case, evil).

    Listeners can be interpreted in a similar way; loss of faith is a common theme in late Victorian and Edwardian literature eg what if Christ turned up and no one cared? Using that analogy, in this poem, the Traveller is the Christ figure, keeping his promise to return but the house (or church) contains only the memories of faith, not the solid reality.

    Thus "'Tell them I came, and no one answered, that I kept my word' he said."

    The 'phantom listeners' hear the call but do not answer; the lines about the sound of retreating hoofs etc are similar to those in Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach about the 'melancholy, long with drawing roar' as the Sea of Faith retreats (I bet his wife enjoyed that honeymoon).

    1. Gooner Tim...this reminded me of my Grandmother's prayer book which had a picture in the front of Christ knocking on a door in a moonlit forest. Underneath was the caption "Is there anybody there said the traveller".

  22. That's possibly the most likely explanation 'Anon 5th April', if indeed there is one. Behold I stand at the door and knock. It is Christ who has kept his promise and returned, but the ex-humans do not value him and keep their silence, unwilling to engage. And so Christ moves off and leaves them to their sorry darkness.
    Signed: Ross

  23. What is the thesis and meaning of the poem? I am making a commentary for the poem and I can't get my findings into a couple sentences. Could you help?