The Listeners

September 1, 2018  Leave a comment

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?

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,
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.

With their destruction in fire and brimstone, Sodom and Gomorrah are associated with God’s judgement and Hell, and too many “Christian” signs saying “God hates fags.”

I won’t deny that God judges, but I do reject the weight we’ve placed on His judgement. The most quoted passage in the Bible by the Bible is Exodus 34:6-7. The God that revealed himself to Moses said He is, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

I said in a previous post, that the passage shows God’s character is weighted towards mercy. His judgement is to a third and a fourth while his mercy is to a thousand. God judges but his mercy has broken the scales.

So what does this have to do with Sodom and Gomorrah and by extension our understanding of God’s judgement and Hell? The story of Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t begin with its citizens’s demand to sodomize those two visitors but with a conversation between Abraham and God. When God tells Abraham of his plan to destroy the city, Abraham prays to God, asking if he is willing to spare the city on behalf of 50 righteous people. And God says he is willing. Abraham persists, asking God if he would spare the city for 45. God agrees. Abraham continues, how about 30? He’s willing. 20? He’s willing still. 10? And yes, God is willing to overlook the sins of an entire city for 10 righteous people.

That story does two things. First it shows just how far God is weighted towards mercy. He is absolutely willing to overlook our sins for the sake of the righteous. He takes no delight in the death of the wicked. Think of a man having to put his dog down because it hurt his children and others. Does the man delight in his pet’s death? If he puts his dog down at all, he does so as a last result and not without tears. That’s God’s judgement. He desires that none should perish.

But the story also gives us a test for those who claim to follow God. Abraham does not put out a lawn chair, open a six pack, and yell for the fireworks. He begs God, if at a possible, to spare the city! He begs God to overlook the wicked and vile acts of its people. Abraham isn’t simply praying for the righteous, he could have prayed that they simply be spared. No. Abraham, the friend of God, prays for the mercy of God to be abundantly poured out on those undeserving of it.

And If that’s God’s heart and the heart of the one God called his friend, shouldn’t we expect that to be the heart of those who now claim to be God’s friends?