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Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners"

Updated on December 11, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Walter de la Mare

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Listeners"

The poem, "The Listeners," is Walter de la Mare’s most famous work. It might be considered an innovative ballad.

The Listeners

‘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.

A reading of "The Listeners"

Commentary

First Movement: Knocking at the Door

‘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:

The first movement paints the scene with a man knocking at the door of a house in the forest. Nighttime has gathered. His horse munches at the "grasses / Of the forest's ferny floor." The only identification of the man who knocks is "the Traveller" all throughout the entire poem.

Second Movement: Knocking and Calling Out

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.

As the "traveller" continues to knock at the door, while also calling out, his noise frightens a bird that then flies "out of the turret."

That the house was fixed with a "turret" suggests that the dwelling is not simply a small cabin in the woods. The man then knocks at the door again, while continuing to call out, "Is there anybody there? "

Third Movement: Waiting for a Response

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 man continues to stand still and to wait for a response to his rapping at the door, but no one comes to answer.

No one ever comes to the door, and no one even looks out of the window to see who might be rapping. If anyone had peeped out at the traveler, that person might have noticed that the traveler had "grey eyes. "

Fourth Movement: Listening Ghosts?

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:

The narrator of this mysterious incident then allows the reader a glimpse behind the closed door at what the traveler cannot see. The reader thereby understands that "only a host of phantom listeners / That dwelt in the house then / Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight."

The listeners do not seem to be flesh and blood human beings, but instead they seem to be mere ghosts who simply exist "listening" to that voice from the world of men. "

Fifth Movement: Listeners Still Standing

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 listeners are still standing in the fifth movement; they are "thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair. " The stairway leads "down to the empty hall. " Therefore, the phantoms stand on the stairway listening as the traveler’s knocking and calling out disrupts the silence that reigns in the empty hall.

Sixth Movement: A Sense of Strangeness

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;

The traveler seems to sense the "strangeness " of those ghost-like presences within the house through the "stillness" that is "answering his cry." The only sound that the traveler can hear is his horse as the animal continues to champ at the grass, "cropping the dark turf. "

Above him, the traveler can see the stars and leaves on the trees, shading the mysterious house in the dense forest.

Seventh Movement: A Puzzling Promise

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.

Suddenly, some movement startles, as the traveller bangs on the door one last time, this time even harder than before. Then the traveler utters a strange message: "Tell them I came, and no one answered, / That I kept my word."

Part of the puzzle is resolved: the traveler has promised someone he could come, and he did. But still a puzzle remains: to whom did he make the promise and for what reason?

Eighth Movement: Still Standing, Still Listening

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:

The phantom "listeners" continue to remain still and silent, never speaking; although they surely have heard the words of the traveler. The words therefore, "[f]ell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house. "

Ninth Movement: What the Listeners Hear

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 traveler finally climbs back upon his horse and rides off, but the scene of the traveler leaving is unveiled only through what the listeners hear: they hear him put his foot in the stirrup; they hear the clanking of the horseshoes upon the stony ground, and finally, they hear the horse’s hooves speed up to a gallop.

And then the listeners still stand, hear nothing, only "how the silence surged softly backward." The listeners are left standing on the stairway in the moonlight, and no one ever knows why. The mystery continues.

A Cult Following

Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners" has gathered a cult like following. The famous novelist and poet Thomas Hardy said about this poem, "'The Listeners' is possibly the finest poem of the century." Hardy’s widow reported that toward the end of Hardy's life, her husband would become weary listening to prose, but he would have her read "The Listeners" to him in the middle of the night.

Biographical Sketch of Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare is one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated poets in the Western world. His works yoke together the physical and spiritual levels of being in entertaining and enlightening ways.

Early Life and Ancestry

Sir Walter John Delamare was born in Kent, England, April 25, 1973. He disliked the name "Walter"; he preferred to be called "Jack," the nickname for his middle name. His parents were James Edward Delamare, who served as an official at the Bank of England, and Lucy Sophia Browning, whose relation to the poet Robert Browning remains in dispute.

His mother, Lucy, was a Scot, and on his father's side the family descended from the French Huguenots. Walter later started using the original French spelling of his family name, "de la Mare," which he deemed more poetic.

Education and Work

After his education at St. Paul's Cathedral Choir School in London, de la Mare served in the accounting department at Standard Oil, an Anglo-American Oil Company, from 1890 until 1908, when he became the recipient of an annual government pension of $135.

This pension allowed him to leave the business world to spend his time on his creative writing, which he had already begun while in school, when he founded and edited a journal called The Choiristers’ Journal.

Publishing

De la Mare' began publishing his writings in 1895 with his first short story, "Kismet." At that time, he used the pen-name "Walter Ramal." In 1902, he published a book of poems, Songs of Childhood, still under the pen-name. In 1904, he dropped the pen-name and published his first novel Henry Brocken under his own name. In 1906, he published a collection simply titled, Poems. From this point on, he published poetry, short stories, novels, or essays virtually every year.

One of de la Mare's most successful collections of poetry is The Listeners, which features the eerie title poem, "The Listeners," a work that has gathered a cult like following. The famous novelist and poet Thomas Hardy said about this poem, "'The Listeners' is possibly the finest poem of the century." Hardy’s widow reported that toward the end of Hardy's life, her husband would become weary listening to prose, but he would have her read "The Listeners" to him in the middle of the night.

De la Mare's Marriage

In 1892, after joining the dramatics club, Esperanza Amateur Dramatics, de la Mare met Elfrida Ingpen, the leading lady. Ingpen was ten years de la Mare's senior, but the two fell in love and married in August 1899. The couple produced four offspring: Richard, Colin, Florence, and Lucy. The family resided first in Beckenham and then Anerley until 1924. Their home was noted for hosting lively parties that featured games such as charades.

Elrida was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1940. For the next three years, Mrs. de la Mare passed her life as an invalid and succumbed to her illness in 1943. De la Mare then relocated to Twickenham, where he spent the rest of his life.

De la Mare's Death

After his wife's passing, de la Mare continued to publish and edit his works. He began to suffer from a heart condition in 1947. His last year of life found him bed-ridden. He received constant care from a nurse with whom had a close, affectionate relationship. He died on June 22, 1956. His ashes rest in a crypt at St. Paul's Cathedral, where the poet once served as a choirboy.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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