What message is Walter de la Mare trying to give in his poem "The Listeners"?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Poet Walter de La Mare, alive between 1873 and 1956, wrote during the literary period of Realism (1820 - 1920) and the birth of Existentialism (1915 - present). Realism was a product of the corruption of the Industrial Revolution and strove to present life as it truly is, with all its hardships and tribulations. Existentialism was a product of both the corruption of the Industrial Revolution and the devastation of World War I and essentially came to assert that existence has no true meaning or purpose. Hence, the message found in de La Mare's poem "The Listeners" captures both of these literary genres.

In the poem, a traveler has come in the middle of the night to a house in a desolate spot that appears to be completely empty. By the time we reach the end of the poem, we learn that the traveler has journeyed to the house to fulfill some sort of unidentified promise, as we see in the lines, "'Tell them I came, and no one answered, / That I kept my word,' he said." However, it appears that the traveler has arrived much too late to fulfill his promise for either no one is their to receive him, or if anyone is there, for some reason, that person desires not to receive him. The traveler's inability to fulfill his promise until it was too late can be said to reflect fate--fate keeps humanity from doing what it wants to do, creating futility and meaninglessness in human existence. The representation of futility in human existence captures elements of the existentialist philosophy, whereas the realism that not all promises can be fulfilled and empty houses must sometimes be faced capture ides expressed during the Realism movement.