Attempt a critical appreciation of the poem "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare.

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martyweis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Walter de la Mare’s poem “The Listeners” vividly depicts a traveler who, upon arriving at his destination, knocks repeatedly on a door. After multiple attempts fail to bring about a response, the nameless traveler turns and leaves. Despite the simplicity of the poem’s narrative, it is an aesthetically beautiful poem that uses vivid language, alliteration, and apostrophe to equate the isolation of the traveler with that of the reader.

The use of vivid language and alliteration in “The Listeners” is so excessive that it almost draws attention to the artifice of poetry itself. Although the narrative is limited and largely left unexplained, in its place we have an excess of description—we receive a description of the forest and learn that the traveler’s eyes are grey. But it’s not simply the excess of descriptive language; equally important is the poetic form through which it is presented. Consider, for example, the use of alliteration in line four: “Of the forest’s ferny floor.” This repetition of sound is excessive, and it draws the reader’s attention to the poetic techniques that the poem employs.

This surplus of detail, however, is not a weakness of the poem but instead its primary strength. In a poem where we have little sense of what is happening narratively, our attention shifts to poetics itself. The traveler is isolated and unable to communicate, both with those within the house and with the reader.

In the poem’s final moments, the speaker interjects, only further drawing attention to the poem’s structure. “Ay,” says the speaker. In this moment, the speaker, who previously existed only to present narrative and details, becomes a character, employing a form of apostrophe. Apostrophe is a literary technique in which the speaker addresses an absent figure, and this technique is fitting for “The Listeners.” “The Listeners” is about so many different absences: the absence of communication, the absence of whoever the traveler is trying to reach, and the absence that is produced by a poem, which is never able to truly communicate with its reader. This absence is tragic, but it is also as beautiful as the forest that we read about.

lit24 | Student

The poem "The Listeners" by Walter de La Mare describes an eerie situation in which a traveller alights from his horse and knocks on the doors of an old ruined castle in order to keep an appointment with its ghostly inmates. However, all his repeated efforts end in failure and he leaves without meeting them, remarking "tell them I came and no one answered/That I kept my word."

The aesthetic appeal of the poem is largely a result of  the dramatic irony which is used with remarkable force  to produce a  spine-chilling effect. The readers know that the castle is peopled with ghostly inmates and that the horse- rider is just separated from them so tantalisingly by a mere door. Although the traveller can sense their presence, "and he felt in his heart their strangeness" he is forced to leave confused and perplexed without making contact with them thinking that there is no one in the castle.

The mystery is heightened by the poet's use of a few choice words  to create eerie supernatural atmospheric effects:

"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."

The true beauty of the poem lies in the fact that it defies a complete and definitive explanation. Many questions remain unanswered: who is the "traveller?" why does he stop by at the castle? who are the ghosts in the castle? and most importantly  what do the lines "Tell them I came, and no one answered/That I kept my word" signify?

Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners" like Keats' grecian urn  "dost tease out of thought" and like it seems to say to us,

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'