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"The Listeners"
Posted by: Estelle (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 01, 2006 04:46PM

Hey Everyone!
I've been thinking about Walter De La Mare's poem "The Listeners" a lot lately, and I was wondering what other people make of it. I haven't been able to find any sort of analysis of it anywhere. Actually I don't really want a cut-and-dried explanation of it - that would kind of ruin the mystery - but I would be really interested in hearing what other people's ideas are. Does anyone have any?
Here's the poem for easy reference:

Is there anybody there?” said the Traveler,
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 traveler’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveler;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray 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 Traveler’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 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:
Aye, 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.

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 01, 2006 05:50PM

I have read it a bunch of times, seeking the same sort of solution as you. Some folks also say the rhythm is jangled, others say it flows quite nicely. Clearly, the author had something specific in mind, and made conscious choices when he wrote it, but it remains a mystery. Anybody's guess as to Wally's actual intended message, I would think. Therefore, it is safe to make whatever interpretation you like, knowing you cannot be proved wrong.

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: lg (Moderator)
Date: November 01, 2006 11:18PM

Could be about alienation, and/or xenophobia, but who knows. Seems to me it's just one of those open ended poems, meant to make us all wonder.

Sometimes poets leave us guessing just to prove they can.


Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: marian2 (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 02, 2006 04:21AM

I think it's just a poem to give people a frisson - a gentle Halloween-type of story, illustrating that 'there are more things in heaven and earth....' It always reminds me of the Borrowers books and poems like Lollocks. De La Mare was great at creating atmosphere by clever discriptions of fairly minor events - there's a poem called Martha that has always got me, though nothing really happens in it:

"Once...Once upon a time..."
Over and over again,
Martha would tell us her stories,
In the hazel glen.

Hers were those clear gray eyes
You watch, and the story seems
Told by their beautifulness
Tranquil as dreams.

She'd sit with her two slim hands
Clasped round her bended knees;
While we on our elbows lolled,
And stared at ease.

Her voice and her narrow chin,
Her grave small lovely head,
Seemed half the meaning
Of the words she said.

"Once...Once upon a time..."
Like a dream you dream in the night,
Fairies and gnomes stole out
In the leaf-green light.

And her beauty far away
Would fade, as her voice ran on,
Till hazel and summer sun
And all were gone:--

All fordone and forgot;
And like clouds in the height of the sky,
Our hearts stood still in the hush
Of an age gone by.

Walter De La Mare

Another poem with a similar mystery is How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix by Browning - we had a discussion about it some time ago and eventually discovered that Browning was on a ship wishing he was back at home trying out a new horse and wrote the poem to describe a daydream about it - there was no historical link etc. Browning did it at least once more with My Last Duchess.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 11/02/2006 04:22AM by marian2.

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Elliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 02, 2006 01:57PM


Yes, a bit jangled, a mystery. We have all been there, expecting someone in, but knock, ring the bell and wonder if we are being ignored, or whether they are hung up in traffic, out shopping, or just at the laundromat. To me, it is the mystery that hangs, the let-down; you said you'd be there, they weren't; you kept your promise, they didn't, but you don't know if it means anything; what will they say? Uncle Flamergushen died? The cat was sick - hung up at the vet? The mystery prevails; the wait; and maybe an answer.


Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Estelle (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 03, 2006 12:27PM

One really interesting thing about the poem is that we are shown the scene from the points of view of both the traveler and the listeners. If we look at it from the listeners' perspective, it starts to look like an allegory of missed opportunity and wasted chances. Perhaps the listeners were once people (the line "the one man left awake" might point to this) but have let themselves, through inaction, passivity, or whatever, fade into mere phantoms, shadows of what they could have been. Now they are trapped in a decaying house, cut off from humanity by their own inertness, and they sit around all day doing nothing (lone house; quiet of the moonlight; dark stair; empty hall; stillness; echoing; shadowiness of the still house), letting birds nest in their turrets. When the traveler comes, he brings with him a chance to redeem themselves, (a summons? a message?) to reunite themselves with "the world of men". But they are too afraid (or simply uncaring?) to answer, and their last chance slips away. The last few lines have such a strong feeling of "Now's your chance! You can still answer, it's not too late!" "Yes it is, see, he's turning away." "But if you call out now, he'll turn back! Hurry!" "No, he's climbing on his horse. Soon he'll be gone." "But he isn't yet! Run out and stop him!" "It's too late, he's galloping away." "If you had shouted he might still have heard you." "Well I can't, now. It doesn't matter. He's gone." The silence surges softly backward, and there's a note of relief: "It's over, out of our hands again. There's nothing we have to do now. No decisions to make" but also a note of misgiving and regret. The plunging hooves are gone forever and they missed their last chance.
Of course, that still leaves plenty of questions, mostly about the traveler: Who sent him in the first place? Who is he expecting to find there? What "word" is he keeping? Who is he talking to when he says "tell them I came"? Is he speaking directly to the phantoms? If so, who then is "them", and why does he think the phantoms could tell "them" anything? Is he talking to the air, and is "them" the phantoms? Then, is it a promise to the phantoms that he is keeping?
Anyway, it's all very fascinating and this post is long enough as it is.

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 03, 2006 12:32PM

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:

Well, the listeners are obviously somewhere else but in the world of men. Ergo, it's not God/Jesus who returns to his flock. The location would seem to be a castle in a forest (on earth, since there is a moon?) The visitor has ridden a horse to the encounter, so one anticipates the time frame would likely be of old. He kept his word to return, so he was there once before and probably had to leave for pressing reasons. The listeners are frightened creatures, since they do not even trust the voice to be the one who promised to return.

They are ghosts? Well, supposably phantoms anyway. May we infer that a 'host' is an unspecified large number? A host is also one who invites guests. Yeah, it's a being that supports a parasite too, unlikely an interpretation as that may be.

What else?

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 03, 2006 12:35PM

Sorry, I cross-posted with Estelle, but will leave mine all intact for continuity anyway.

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Elliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 03, 2006 01:22PM

The LISTENERS - plural; who are the others? Perhaps it is us - we have all been there...


Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 03, 2006 01:31PM

Can you hear me now?


Good !

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: jerrygarner7 (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 07, 2006 02:40PM

The house had a history, important events occurred there bringing the rider to resolve an unfinished conflict. What event?
Did the traveler come to make amends or obtain a conclusion that he desperately needed?
The house is a metaphor for unresolved conflicts that nag, never going away.
The house is an enity,each board and nail has a memory of what occurred there.

The importance of site, our personal sites-think of your house of origin and the unresolved conflicts (good and bad) that still live there, though the principals have long since moved away.
When you pass the old homestead, they stir, awaking memories...

Either way, for good or ill, and it appears he came for good, but left unfulfilled.

I agree with Estella and Clary for the most part, but think the traveler and the house share equal value in the tale. The house is a storage site of ‘old things,’ now gone, but still valued. If the traveler can speak to the 'empty'
house, something of value still lives there.

I prefer to view the old sleeping man, as one pulled from a slumber, unaware of the history of the house, wondering why the traveler would come at this late hour, disturbing his sleep? If the traveler’s arrival were acknowledged, he would be subjected to endless question, knowing none of the answers.
‘No, better to keep quite, maybe he will go away and I can rest.’
The world has moved on, leaving only an old man trying to rest and a weary traveler a quest.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 11/07/2006 06:59PM by jerrygarner7.

Re: "The Listeners"
Posted by: Elliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 11, 2006 10:11PM

Estelle, you are on to it; the point IS the mystery; something we can allidentify with; even the possibility of the Listeners inside; we don't know, what we don't know, when we don't know it; mystery prevails...


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