‘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 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!