The poem ‘The Listeners’ by Walter De La Mare is haunting in its atmosphere and engaging in the way it elicits so many questions.
Here’s a quick synopsis. Deep in a forest on a moonlit night a Traveler knocks insistently on a ‘lone house’ door. “Is there anyone there”, he cries. But no one answers. From somewhere in the house a ‘host of phantom listeners’ hear him and the Traveler calls out to them instead, ‘tell them I came and no one answered / that I kept my word.’ And with that, he climbs on his horse and leaves.
Who exactly is this Traveler? Where are the people for the whom the Traveler has called? And who are the ‘phantom listeners’?
I’ve thought about this poem for years and I think I might have some answers. The interpretation of poetry is, of course, not as objective as other forms of literature. Poetry emphasizes the evocation of a feeling over the defining of a concrete ideas. De La Mare himself said of poetry that ‘how it is said is what it means”’and ‘you can’t prove a poem it proves you.’ In this sense, a poet isn’t so much communicating their own ideas but creating a mirror in which others can find their own. And yet that’s not to say the meaning of a poem is totally subjective. Something is being communicated and defined. And to say that a poem can simply mean anything is ridiculous. The poem points in a direction even as it leaves that direction open to a number of possibilities.
De La Mare said almost nothing about the meaning of the Listeners which he published in 1912. But in the 1950’s, near the end of his life, he would cryptically tell a friend “it’s about a man encountering a universe.” The man, presumably the Traveler, keeps his word to the universe but finds in it no response. One way to read The Listeners is, thus, to see the Traveller as ourselves, keeping our word to a universe which demonstrates no reciprocal concern. De La Mare could be alluding to Stephen Crane’s poem “a man said to the universe” which was written a little more than a decade before the Listeners was published.
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
We may keep our word to the universe but the universe could really care less. There is no god who hears us only a ‘host of phantom listeners’ who’ve experienced, like the traveler, the silence and emptiness of the house.
But De La Mare’s statement is cryptic enough to be taken in another way. The Listeners tells the story of a man who returns at night by horse to knock on a door only to find the occupants unprepared and or asleep. Given the context of the poem’s original audience, the allusions to the return of Christ seems almost a given. In the Bible Jesus promises to return and tells his followers to watch and stay awake because his coming will come like a thief in the night. And in the book of Revelation, he returns riding on a horse and there he also declares,
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”
It would seem the poem may not only be pointing to the absence of God in the universe but to his presence which has simply been missed. God has sought us but we were asleep.
Either way it’s a haunting poem.
The “phantom listeners”, at bottom, are the readers and hearers of the poem, the only ones who actually hear the Travaler’s call. We exist in this world, apart from the narrative. We hear his call and yet are unable to respond. He senses us and speaks to us but all we can do is listen. Will we heed what we’ve heard?
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 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.