The Listeners Questions and Answers
by Walter De la Mare

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In the poem "The Listeners," what does "iron on stone" mean?

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Jay Gilbert, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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De La Mare's "The Listeners" is interesting because, while the Traveler himself is the first person described in the poem, the point of view is ultimately that of the titular Listeners inside the dark house. At the end of the poem, "when the plunging hoofs were gone," the Listeners are still there, absorbing and interpreting the scene through its sounds.

Because of this focus on the Listeners, de la Mare uses sound-based details to set the scene throughout the poem. We, as the reader, imagine the scene through the interpretation of these details, just as the Listeners do. The Traveler's voice in the quietude, the sound of him "knocking on the moonlit door," the way his horse "champed the grasses" as he waited for his master, and the heavier sound of the Traveler's knock as he "smote" a second time—all of these elements indicate to the Listeners that the Traveler has arrived. In the same way, then, the sound details at the end of the poem are what indicate to the Listeners that the Traveler is departing. They heard, first, "his foot upon the stirrup," which signifies that he is climbing back onto his horse in readiness for departure. The next sound, that of "iron on stone," is the sound of the horse's iron horseshoes striking stone, perhaps the stone of a courtyard or of an old road, now little used. This sound indicates to the Listeners that the Traveler is leaving them, having, as he says, "kept my word."

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Much of the imagery in "The Listeners," by Walter de la Mare, is of sound, as the title portends.  In  order to understand what is meant by that description, we need to remember that the Traveller in the poem has arrived at this house on horseback and that the path or road to the house must be made of stones, possibly cobblestones.  If we are to be in a time period during which people get about on horseback in the forest, it makes sense that any paths or roads would be of stone, since paved roads would be completely incongruous.  Now, let's look at the final four lines of the poem:

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 (33-36). 
 
Can't you hear this? The Traveller swings up on his horse, and the horse's hooves, which have iron horseshoes on them, are striking the stones, a kind of sound that is quite distinctive. We can hear the sound diminish, as the Traveller and his horse move on, and the silence takes over again. I love the idea of silence surging, in waves. Of course, sound really is waves, but this gives us a way of "seeing" silence.

 

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