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 narrative poem 'The Listeners' 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 ABCB masculine rhyme scheme ('door'/'floor', 'head'/'said'), with no stanzaic divisions and a very loose (and arguably complicated) metre - the lines range from six to fourteen syllables, combining anapaests and iambs in a seemingly arbitrary pattern. What this perhaps suggests, then, is that the movement of the narrative was more important to the poet than a fixed, regular, metre.

The poem begins with direct speech - 'Is there anybody there?' - which immediately captures the reader's attention, not least because it is a question. The second line then sets the scene for us with economical brevity - the traveller is depicted ‘knocking on the moonlit door’, which tells us both the main part of the plot, and that this is happening at night time. Indeed, given the connotations of moonlight in folk-fiction (e.g. werewolves and other supernatural beings), this detail introduces a sense of the supernatural to the poem.

The two following lines increase the eeriness of the poem with their strong suggestions of sound. The juxtaposition of the words ‘silence’ and ‘champed’ introduces an interesting contrast, as the strong monosyllabic and onomatopoeic word ‘champed’ seems to burst into the silence of the line. This implies that the noises of the horse are the only sounds to be heard in the deep silence of the night. Indeed, the alliteration in the words ‘Of the forest’s ferny floor' might perhaps symbolise the sound of 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. Indeed, we are told that 'No head' peered over the window-sill, and the disconnection here between head and body likewise hints at the supernatural. This imagery is sustained by the employment of the words ‘phantom listeners’, again introducing the concept of ghosts. The phantoms are made to seem yet more alien and eerie by the use of the phrase ‘that voice from the world of men…’ Just as earlier the horse's chewing broke the silence of the night, so the Traveller's voice breaks the 'quiet of the moonlight'. 

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.

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, whilst also reinforcing the contrast between the Traveller, who has 'stirred and shaken' the air with his voice, and the mysterious listeners, whose 'strangeness' can be felt. 

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 is a homophone - i.e. it sounds the same as the word 'stare', and thus the reader may visualise an eerie pair of eyes. The idea that one is being observed, especially when alone, is indeed particularly evocative.

Perhaps the scariest part of the poem is the sibilance in the second last line, the crux of the poem, when he writes ‘…the silence surged softly backward…’ The repeated ‘s’ sound perhaps resembles the sound of whispering. This would suggest that, though the listeners have been silent during their contact with the world of men, as the traveller rides off, 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’. Of course, we don't know what is meant by "That I kept my word", nor do we know who any of the characters actually are. Two possible explanations for the existence of these phantoms have gained particular credence. Perhaps, as many people believe, the proprietors of the house died from the bubonic plague (a valid explanation considering the whole household seemed to be dead). Another less explanation that is often used 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. Indeed, not knowing the details of the situation is all part of the fear and drama of the poem. Perhaps his only aim was 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??

    1. This is an unrealistic situation that sadly none of us will ever come near to experiencing. The older ones amongst us will have the hideous experience of returning to a place of perhaps extreme beauty only to discover that it has been turned into a living over built hell. The direction is always the same.
      Imagine returning to an ugly housing estate and finding it long deserted and nature working its magic and returning it to beauty. All the noise, pollution and overcrowding gone. We may never experience such a change but our traveller did.
      For this reason I consider the traveller may well have been a ghost, unable to perceive the modern world and unable to communicate with it.

  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.

    1. Yes that makes sense.We read too much into other's words

  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

    1. 'a huge fan of good litrature'
      Try learning some decent English first.Your mistakes are really bad all the way through.

  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.

    4. Why didn't you just go and find your cousin out in the fields?

  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?


    1. Read up the comments (not the later ones about Christianity, so much). It's all there.

  24. I always loved this poem. Its the only one I remember from all those forced down my throat in school. I always thought that it was about a dead body who slowly realises that it is dead.

  25. Explanations for these kinda poem can be different frm person to person. Well wat I think in conclusion is dat....may be the traveller once in his other life used to be the member of the family in dat house and as something went wrng, he died, leaving his family live without him. May be it was a real misery and unexpected and he left something undone for his family so he promised dat he would come back and let his work be done even after his death. But he was a little late in his reincarnation and when he finally realise dat he had a promise to keep, his family was no more and only their memories in dat house live which seems like they were still waiting for the traveller but,he could not keep his words. And if u wana take it in a little errie way then u may recall it ‘ghost' or ‘soul' of the traveller's family in place of ‘memories'. Thats all,anyways,wat do u guys think about my thoughts?tough m not a gud student.

  26. This is my Analysis so far..

    De La Mare creates a very eerie and tense mood in his poem ‘The Listeners’. There is a traveller who visits a house where we presume he knows the occupant. However, his words are only heard by a group of phantoms or ghosts.

    The opening line of the poem creates a sense of suspenseful drama as the speaker comes across a home with no one there.  The opening words of "Is anybody there?" straight away grabs the audience’s attention because we want to know if there is anybody there. It also gives the impression that the traveller is isolated, however we do not find out, it is left unexplained. The reader is left to ask if the speaker is new there or has the speaker been there before.  Is this a visit or a return?  The tiny details add to this huge atmosphere of intrigue. 

    Regarding the setting and location the poem is set in a forest this can be seen in the fourth line 'Of the forests ferny floor' this is most likely to be because a forest is a mysterious place, especially at night, the time of which the poem is set in, this is also seen early on in the poem when it says 'Knocking on the moonlit door' another quote to support this is 'stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight' Walter de la Mare has used the time of night to add to the mystery of the poem. The use of Pathetic Fallacy reinforces the sense of mystery by a considerably large margin. the connotations of moonlight – referring to fiction books - (e.g. Werewolves, Draculas and other supernatural beings), this detail introduces a sense of supernatural to the poem.

    Imagery is used throughout the poem in order to present the hosts as ghost-like, chilling entities. The word ‘descended’ suggests floating; 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 phantoms are made to seem yet more abnormal and eerie by the use of the phrase ‘that voice from the world of men’


  27. Have just come back to "The Listeners" after many years, but this time reading it in De la Mare's original context, his 1912 volume of subtly interlinked poems called THE LISTENERS AND OTHER POEMS. Out of that context three things: 1) the Traveller himself cannot be identified, he could as easily be Odysseus as Jesus, but he is surely one of De La Mare's many "wanderers"; 2) the fact that a message has been delivered, an oath fulfilled, is all we can extract from this deep sleep twilight; 3) the message, being not paraphrasable, could be called an example of pure poetry, while the poem itself, embedded as it is in a flowing context of similar poems, is "impure": which is to say it ignores any conviction that a poem to be real must be autonomous

  28. I had a different interpretation of the poem - The place seems to be a castle ('turret') which has been abandoned for some time (grass grows right up to the door where the Traveller is knocking). The setting felt somehow medieval (from the use of archaic terms 'champed', 'smote', 'spake'). Thus I inferred 'Camelot' and saw the Traveller as a knight who has been away on a long quest and finally returned. Too long, however, as everyone at court is now dead and Camelot deserted and overgrown. The point being, single-minded dedication to a task without keeping an eye on the broader perspective can be counter-productive. Yes, the Knight has kept his word but the commitment turns out to be pointless.

  29. mysterious rhetoric creation one better to feel not explain while memorize in seconary course

  30. A couple of years ago, there was a brief craze for turning great poems into limericks, and this is one of the ones I wrote:

    The Traveler called at the door
    That his promise he'd kept, as he'd swore,
    Til unanswered, bereft,
    He grew weary and left
    Just our silence behind him, no more.

    Would that I could have alluded to the moonlight, the forest, the encroaching grass, the champing horse, but the five-line form doesn't expand like a portmanteau at need.