What, if any, is the historical setting for Walter de la Mare's poem The Listeners?
Walter de la Mare was a prolific author of ghost and children’s stories, and his poem The Listeners fits neatly into the former genre. As with many British writers, de la Mare’s works reflect the atmosphere of his native England, with its seemingly eternal cold, damp and dark environment, which always made it conducive to literary works characterized by horror and general bleakness. There is no established historical setting for The Listeners. One can, however, easily place this poem within the so-called Middle Ages, when knights roamed the English countryside and castles were a common sight. While the poem’s “Traveller” could be a figure of the Medieval world, however, he could just as easily be a representative of the late-19th century, when de la Mare (1873-1956) was a child growing up in England. De la Mare’s poem is about a figure, the “Traveller,” who approaches what is apparently a castle (“a bird flew up out of the turret”) and knocks on the door. There is no answer, and there won’t be any answer. De la Mare, however, suggests that the lack of answer is not for want of an occupant, but rather because the occupants are spirits or ghosts. At least, some have suggested that the occupants, the listeners, are ghosts – a logical conclusion given the reference to “phantom listeners.” In short, the author’s reputation for an active interest in matters of the occult and ghosts, combined with hints of the supernatural nature of the castle’s occupants, leaves on to conclude that this is a ghost-themed poem.
De la Mare’s “traveller” is persistent in his entreaties, finally declaring aloud, “‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, That I kept my word,’ he said.” The castle’s occupants, though, remain silent, unresponsive, and the traveler departs.
The Listeners could, as noted take place within a span of eight hundred years, beginning around the year 1000 A.D. It has the definite feel, though, of something that is occurring in Medieval times, possibly in the era of the Black Death. Little context is provided, however, other than the “fact” of horses as the principle mode of transportation and the existence of a castle now occupied solely by the ghosts of those who came before.