In this poem, Walter de la Mare gives life to emptiness. We have a lonely traveler, having ridden into a lush and overgrown forest on a horse, knocking at an abandoned home. It is nighttime, and twice, as he knocks, he repeats, “Is anybody there?’” but no answer comes. In lines 27 and 28, he speaks to the silence before him again: “Tell them I came, and no one answered, / That I kept my word.” The reader here learns that he had made some distant promise to come to this dwelling in the wood; and yet after coming so far, he finds that it is all in vain.
Between the traveler’s initial questions and his final request, there is a long break where he does not speak, and instead the listeners in the house are described. De la Mare excels at giving the reader a sense of total silence and isolation, juxtaposing the noises of the man knocking and speaking, and the grazing of the horse, with the stillness he gets from the house in reply. The “phantom listeners” are the negative imprints of those who once dwelt in the house; negative imprints in the form of
…faint moonbeams on the dark stair
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry.
The only thing causing any movement is the traveler himself, whose voice disturbs the stillness of the air. De la Mare uses basic vocabulary to evoke this stillness; words that echo thinly through the darkness, which therefore serve to emphasize it. The reader is given images of emptiness, as the moonbeams on the stairs in the excerpt above, and the “empty hall.” Every time the traveler speaks, his words echo “through the shadowiness of the still house.” Shadows are the only things that stir in this place. And yet the shadows, and the moonlight, and the overgrowth in the eaves, all seem to be listening intently in the quiet of the night.
This poem plays upon humanity’s estrangement from nature, and the utter silence of the wider world in the face of one individual’s quest. The world waits for no man’s promises, but continues on as it will. We have the contrast of man, searching, with both his horse, indifferent and unaware of the loneliness, and with the silent watchfulness of the dwelling before him. And really, it is the fact that we have a house at all that makes the scene uncanny and strange; a house implies humans, which implies life similar to one’s own; it is the absence of such that disturbs. The absence of something that should be there. And it is in this absence that the man – or the poet, or the reader – creates these “phantoms,” these imaginary beings, to do the listening. These silent nothings have been personified because a house requires some sort of human life; the traveler speaks to them because it is the unnaturalness of nobody in a home, rather than nothing, that is unnerving. And yet the man’s discomfort contrasts sharply with the nature all around him – his horse, the plants, the night itself – these things belong in this space, have adopted it as their own. The birds are disturbed only by the human in the picture, at this old human abode; they live there peacefully otherwise. Nature has taken over, and man is no longer necessary.
In the end, when the traveler mounts his horse and rides away, the reader is left in this silence, with the house, and the scene falls back exactly as it had been before the traveler arrived. And the phantom listeners – that is, nothing at all – remain to witness “how the silence surged softly backward, / When the plunging hoofs were gone.” As a side note, the alliteration of /s/ sounds in the final few lines leaves the reader with an impression of a mere whisper, as of a breeze through the vines.