Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The Listeners
         By Walter de la Mare

"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
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.

Do you remember this poem from your high school days? I love it because of its descriptive phrases -- lines that truly conjure up a picture that could be painted.

But it's not just the pictures you can see, even more so it is the sounds, or lack of them, that create the mystery. There is the knocking on the door, the horse champing the grasses, the loud fluttering of the bird disturbed by the knocking and the shouted words. In contrast, see the lonely Traveler and hear the silence from within the lonely house -- the house which had "phantom listeners" who stood thronging the dark stairs and the empty hall. Such a contrast was there that the air was stirred and shaken -- truly the Sound of Silence.

Yet the strange stillness was disturbed by the soft sound of his horse moving to crop more grass; such a soft sound as would be largely unheard in a normal moment, but this slight movement contrasts harshly with the next even louder shouting of the Traveler as he not just knocks, but smites the door.

Now comes the heart of the mystery. What do his words mean? To whom is he speaking? The "phantom listeners"... who are they? The Traveler had made a promise to someone. He kept his side of the bargain by coming; but "no one answered". There is some satisfaction in the fact that he kept his word, but his words echoed through the stillness of the house.

The silence returns. Perhaps unnerved, unsatisfied, the Traveler leaves and they heard him go. His retreat shatters the silence again as his horse takes off at a gallop sparking like flint on the stone, leaving behind him the softly, surging silence. A silence that seems to grow and will go on forever because there is no answer; no answer from the Listeners and no answer from the poet.

The poet calls the poem "The Listeners" yet its content seems to be more about the Traveler. So perhaps we could find some explanation by concentrating on who the Listeners were.

Perhaps they represent the souls of a woodsman and his family who one day saved the life of a wounded soldier by hiding him in their cottage. They take their life in their hands knowing that the enemy will find them sooner or later. Yet they keep the soldier until he is able to move again. The soldier, gravely in their debt, knows the danger he has put them in. But before he departs he rashly promises to return with help for his rescuers.

He has no way of knowing that his wounds would overcome him once more and that his own army would find him and hospitalize him until he is well enough to move again.

When he is released, he returns to the lonely cottage deep in the woods, but he is too late. They are gone -- willingly or by force. He has no way of knowing. He kept his word, but it was not enough.

The above is my contribution for  "L" day in ABC WEDNESDAY.  For more interesting, informative, exciting and educational entries please click on the link above .  Kudos to Mrs. Nesbitt and her team  for continuing this theme into its fifth year and ninth round.


Anonymous said...

Hearing is easy but its "L"istening thats got to b learnt..

Pheno, ABCW Team

Scriptor Senex said...

A Lovely con tribution to the letter L. Someif fthe descriptive passages are great - it wasn't on my school curriculum. Phrases like "forest's ferny floor" really stick in the mind, Thank you.

Jane and Chris said...

I enjoyed that! It left me with much to think about.
Jane x

kaybee said...

Even though we attended the same high school, I must have missed a lot! This is a another poem you have mentioned in your blog that I have never heard of. It's very profound, and certainly open to individual interpretation. A great and thought-inspiring "L" post.

photowannabe said...

Whew, I will have to return to read this and "listen" to the words. Its more than my brain can take in at the moment. (:0)

Meryl said...

Lovely "L" post for listening, lingering and maybe some longing as well. Thanks!

Joy said...

Wonderful imagery, I seem to remember De La Mare would never explain it for each person would find something different.

mrsnesbitt said...

Oh Chris - I LOVE THIS poem - it was one of my all time favourites - being a dramatic primary school teacher I would read this aloud in different voices/modes. My favourite was peter Sellers?Hard Day's Night ra - hilarious but the kids loved it and remembered it even more! Thanks so much!
Denise ABC Team.
You have just given me my next round theme - by poetry!

Roger Owen Green said...

I don't know that poem at all! But I love the notion of smiting the door!
ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Morning's Minion said...

That is a favorite poem of mine--of course I always wanted 'the rest of the story.'
There is something eerie about the setting, made more so because we can only guess at the facts. I like the scenerio you have created----while I've always wondered if the listeners were family members who had died or moved away when the traveler was off on his roamings. Fascinating, and the imagery is beautiful.

Wanda said...

Chris, your narrative is so interesting. I was not familiar with the poem, but love it, and especially love the way you shared your thoughts about it.

Very very excellent "L" post.

Tumblewords: said...

An incredibly fine post. The poem itself has been well read and your narrative is wonderful!

Scriptor Senex said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog, Chris. It seems we have a fair bit in common, not least of which is a love of cats. Sadly both ours died earlier this year (at a good age) and we have yet to decide whether to replace them.

Diane said...

Guess what - I found an extra box in the garage from the village fair, and guess what was in it!!! The Greensleeves!!! Let me have your address and I'll see if it will survive a Transatlantic journey. diane008@btinternet.com

Kate said...

Love the air of mystery about it.

Anonymous said...

A lovely poem that conjures images indeed, Chris. I hadn't heard this poem before, but I see ghosts, that the traveler is too late...

Carver said...

I do remember that poem but can't recall where I read it. Great choice for the letter L.

snafu said...

Always good for another interpretation that one. Nice idea, but we will never know why he has returned.

Liz Hinds said...

Spooky! Very beautiful words.

jabblog said...

I like your interpretation of this well-loved poem. There's such a sadness to it or perhaps more a sense of loss.

Chronicles of Illusions said...

what a fabulous post for the letter L