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Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

I learnt this poem at school, probably aged about 12, and it has stayed with me for all my life. It was first published in London in 1912. I only recently began to ask myself why but now I can see that it must have fired my imagination. It paints a picture of a singular incident in a moment of time. As a child I imagined the traveller to be a knight in armour and the building to be a ruined castle - now I can see that the great success of this poem is that one could make many varied interpretations of it. I will discuss it further after you have read it!

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 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.

   I like the air of mystery that the poem creates. Who was the rider? Why was he knocking on the door of a seemingly abandoned building?  Who were ‘they’ who should be told that he had arrived?  And, more than anything, who were the ‘phantom listeners’?  Were they the ghosts of those the traveller had come to meet?
    I wonder why Walter de la Mare called this poem The Listeners and not The Traveller. The initial focus is upon the traveller although it switches back and forth. Apparently, toward the end of his life, in the 1950s, the poet told a friend that it was about a man’s encounter with a universe.
  This opens a new path of enquiry for us.  The poem may be seen as a metaphor for man’s ‘perplexed’ (line 12) place in the universe and non-comprehension of the supernatural world. Does ‘the world of men’ (line 16) intrude upon that of nature. The traveller says ‘tell them I came’, but who is he speaking to?  The house?  The ‘phantoms’?  I am afraid there are more questions than answers in this analysis but that is part of the poem’s beauty and intrigue!
Listening to the fabulous Madeleine Peyroux singing Careless Love. Listen here!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - excellent poem and one I hadn't to my knowledge read ... and then yes to your commentary. It's interesting it is in an anthology ... another 'they' ... but whoever the traveller was - he kept his word ... to go back to meet up. Lots of food for thought here .. fascinating to read - thanks for setting it out for us ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hello Hilary. De la Mare long-resisted having his work anthologised but after WWI his style of poetry went out of fashion and he was disregarded for years but these days he is recognised again. There is so much more to say about this poem that I haven't even touched on - such as meter, masculine rhyming etc (ie only rhyming the last syllable). I still enjoy reading it after all these years and I am instantly transported to another place - that's the power of all good writing!

John said...

Hi Bazza! I had to learn various poems when I was at school, most notably 'If' by Rudyard Kipling, but then I think everybody had to learn that! I can't remember it all, just a few lines. On reading the poem in your post I was transported to an old empty castle, but probably due to both your words and those of the poet!

bazza said...

It's a sad fact that most people hate the poetry that learned in school! There must be something wrong with the teaching I suppose. This poem does transport you though; I'm glad it worked for you John.

Dixie@dcrelief said...

Love the poem, Bazza. Madeline sounds like an artist my Grandfather would have listened to; it brought back a memory for me. Thank you!

bazza said...

Hi Dixie: Madeleine is certainly old school but she has a unique kind of sound and an interesting back-story. I'm glad you like the poem!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza ... I came back ... love the Madeleine rendition ...

Thanks for enlightening me a little further ... I think I didn't understand poetry - now I'm getting to grips with it (very slowly) ... Keats - I loved; Masefield's 'Cargoes' ... and as a family we had lots of family type songs/poetry going on ... Ivan Stavinsky Skavar with Abdul Abdul Amir ... and other parodies ... Flanders and Swann style ...

Cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hello again Hilary. Can't keep away eh? I also enjoy Masefield and as for Ivan Stavinsky Skavar - I haven't heard that for many years!
For me, the point about poetry is that it enables the writer to say something important in a small space, to capture that single moment in time and preserve it like a photograph -just as De la Mare has done.

loverofwords said...

The frustration of not knowing the unknown? I remember reading the poem in class years ago. And. . . love Madeleine's smoky voice. Interesting post as usual, Bazza.

bazza said...

Hello Natasha. You are the first respondent who knew this poem. I really like it of course, but think I may in the minority!
Madeleine Peyroux has a wonderful voice; she spent her teenage years busking in Paris - it all shows in her performance.

Sherry Ellis said...

I remember reading this poem a long time ago. I liked the mysteriousness of it. . . and still do.

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. Yes the mysteriousness is what makes it work. The reader works to fill in the details and when that happens there is more enjoyment in the piece!