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.

What I find intriguing about Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” is his use of negative imagery to foreground an unseen presence by pointing to tangible (or at least imaginable), physical spaces where no thing resides. For example, we first encounter the Traveller –  not the true subject of the poem although the action of the poem follows him – “knocking on a moonlit door/And his horse in the silence chomped the grass” (2-3). The juxtaposition of “knocking” and “chomping” in silence creates an eerie sort of otherworld realm where the sound implies the presence of a perceiver. When the Traveller asks “Is anybody there?” an omniscient narrator answers both the reader and the Traveller: “But no one descended to the Traveller/No head from the leaf-fringed sill/leaned over and looked into his grey eyes”  (9-11). The “no one” also suggests a “one” who is aware of the Traveller. As the scene takes shape through the details of the house with its “moonlit door,” “the dark turf,” the “forest’s ferny floor” and “the shadowiness of the still house,” the Traveller also senses the presence of the “Listeners.” De la Mare writes, “And he felt in his heart their strangeness/Their stillness answering his cry” (21-22). The silence juxtaposed with the few sounds in the forest that tell us the Traveller belongs to the “world of men”  – the chomping of grass, the iron horseshoes on stone, the knocking and his voice – implies a transitional dimension between the perceivable and what lies beyond perception. The fact that he was accused of being an escapist makes me like him even more. All my favorite poets, I now realize, seek escape; Elinor Wylie even wrote a poem called “Escape.” More on Wylie later…

For more information on Walter de la Mare, check out Poetry Foundation.


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