Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

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, 5
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 10
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 15
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. 20
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 25
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 30
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, 35
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
--Walter de la Mare

Since Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, I'm going to post a series of poems appropriate for the season. Interestingly, I found it very difficult to find a good list of spooky, ghostly, autmunal, Halloween poems. Searching on Google mostly gave me junk appropriate for greeting cards or elementary school handwriting practice. Eventually, I was able to gather several, and remember where I'd put a couple more, so we'll have enough to see us through till the end of the month.

I love how deliciously spooky this poem is. A man comes to an empty house and talks to the ghostly presences there. Why did he come? He had an urgent message or errand -- he had made a promise. It reminds me of the scene at the beginnig of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Ros: That's it--pale sky before dawn, a man standing onn his saddle to bang on the shutters--shouts--What's all the row about?! Clear off!--But then he called our names. You remember that--this man woke us up...It was urgent--a matter of extreme urgency, a royal summons, his very words: official business and no questions asked--lights in the stable-yard, saddle up and off headlong and hotfoot across the land, our guides outstripped in breakneck pursuit of our duty! Fearful lest we come too late!!
Guil:Too late for what?
Ros: How do I know? We haven't got there yet.

So was it something like that? Or perhaps he was a sailor, finally come home from the sea, having made his fortune, to marry his true love...and she's not there...nobody's there.

Why is nobody there? Was there a fire? Is he banging on the remnants of charred ruins? Was there plague -- is everybody waiting for him dead? Was he bringing the medicine? Have they lost all their money and moved away? I feel certain that there must have been some tragedy. What do you think?

This poem is one that I found in that wonderful anthology of poems called Off The Ground. I've mentioned these books in my blog before -- Mom got them for me at the LCCC Library book sale. Here are the questions he asks after the poem:

  1. This poem is famous for its atmosphere (see question 10, below). It must be read aloud.
  2. Draw up a rhyme scheme for lines 1-8. In which of these lines do you find alliteration?
  3. Line 5. Why did the bird fly up and out of the turrett?
  4. Line 7. Why "smote"? Would "knocked" do as well? Is there anything strange about the metre of this line? What would be the effect of omitting "again"?
  5. How would you read lines 8, 15, 17-18?
  6. Lines 25-28. Why does the traveller do this? To whom is he speaking?
  7. How would you read lies 28, 31, and 33-36?
  8. Why is the picture so indefinite?
  9. What has the poet not told us that we should like to know? Why did he not tell us?
  10. Have you discovered what is meant by the atmosphere of a poem, and why you have been asked so often how you would read such and such a line?

Try to answer some of the questions before you read the answers he provides at the back of the book.
  1. N/A
  2. Rhyme Scheme: abcbdefe. Alliteration: Line 4.
  3. The traveler has knocked at the moonlit door and called, "Is there anybody there?" and now stands listening in the silence. But he has startled the bird which flies up out of the turret
  4. The sudden flapping of the bird's wings startles him and he again strikes the door, louder because it's the second time, and perhaps because he is startled, therefore "smote". See lines 25-26. Compare line 7 with the corresponding one in rhythm, line 3.
    And his horse in the si-lence champed the gras-ses,
    And he smote up-on the door a-gain a se-cond time.
    Theh slight irregularity in line 7 suggests the disturbed mind of the traveller. We are not sure whether to accent "time" or not. If we omitted "again" we should miss this effect (Karen's note: the version I found online--so I wouldn't have to retype the whole thing-- had indeed omitted "again" as well as a few other words).
  5. The name of this poem is "The Listeners". If you make a decided pause at the end of line 8 you turn your audience into listeners, like the traveller waiting for a reply.
    Line 15. A listening line, therefore quiet, yet every syllable clear.
    Lines 17 and 18. Let the voice go down the stair. Begin high at "Stood thronging", and go down tone by tone till you reach "the empty hall". It makes the hall seem very far down, and dark, and ghostly.
  6. Lines 25-28. See line 12. The strangeness, the stillness is disturbing him (see lines 21-22) and he suddenly makes up his mind, hence "suddenly smote even louder". He is addressing the phantom presences (lines 13-22).
  7. Line 28. What was said of line 8 applies even more here.
    Line 31. An echoing line, therefore slow, to give time for the echo, and every syllable clear though quiet, for the still house; a most beautiful line to read.
    Lines 33-36. If the silence is to surge softly backwards we must begin rather loudly. Note that the sound of iron on stone (line 34) would be clear and ringing. From there begin the diminuendo; do not suddenly drop to silence, but let it surge softly backward.
  8. Note how indefinite even the definite things are: the traveller has grey eyes, but is he old or young, tall or short, fat or thin? He is just a traveller. This indefiniteness seems to add to the strangeness.
  9. The mystery surrounding the story, rousing so many questions that are not answered adds to the strange eerie atmosphere of the poem.
  10. The dictionary says that the atmosphere of a peom is the spiritual influence pervading it. Think of the feeling aroused, the effect on you as you read the poem--that is the atmosphere. As it is the finest thing in this poem and can be obtained only by reading the poem aloud, we must watch how we read each line.


  1. to me the poem is tragic. How do you keep a promise when the intended is dead? How do you maintain honor when those awaiting your help have fled?

  2. For me it's about duty. The traveller fulfils his duty, even though no useful result is achieved by it.

    "Tell them I came, and no one answered,
    That I kept my word,"

    Sometimes we feel a duty, not because of some kind of childhood drilling, but out of being true to oneself and to others. One is obliged, regardless of whether a practical consequence can be achieved.

  3. Anonymous has it right. This poem has been so misinterepreted by so many people.It is a pleasure to find somebody that sees the the obvious key to the poem is in the phrase "I kept my word he said".