“The Listeners” is a 1912 narrative poem written by Walter de la Mere, published as a part of his collection of verses titled The Listeners and Other Poems. It tells the story of a lone Traveler’s arrival in a house deep in the forest on a moonlit evening. The poem has an eerie, mysterious tone, and it is presumably set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, as the Traveler’s choice of transportation is a horse.
The poem consists of thirty-six lines written in an abcb masculine rhyme scheme with a loose meter, which suggests that the author chose to focus more on the plot instead of on the regularity of the tempo, the rhythm, and the meter. Because of the eerie, dramatic mood of the poem, “The Listeners” is considered to be a part of the supernatural genre as well.
As far as the composition of the plot is concerned, it is noteworthy to mention that it doesn’t contain all of the elements. In fact, literary critics and many of de la Mere’s colleagues argue that the poem only has a rising action and a climax, with some even saying that the poem doesn’t start with an exposition but with the main conflict instead. In this case, the rising action or the conflict would be the moment when the Traveler knocks on the door to get the attention of whomever might be inside. Furthermore, the climax is the part when the Traveler decides to leave the house without completing his original intent, saying,
Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word . . .
Moreover, de la Mere hints that the Listeners might have actually heard the Traveler’s words and his departure from the house. Perhaps they even started to murmur to one another.
Though every word he spoke
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house . . .
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.
This part is the actual ending of the poem. We can see an absence of a falling action.
Since de la Mere decided to put his focus on the narrative and the plot itself, the most captivating and interesting element of the poem is probably its meaning. At first glance, “The Listeners” doesn’t seem to be hiding a deeper meaning. But the more you read it, the more questions you will find. For instance, who are these "phantom listeners"? Are they ghosts? De la Mere writes words like "only a host of phantom listeners that . . . Stood listening . . . To that voice from the world of men," which might suggest that the Listeners are not part of the human world. Furthermore, who are the beings that the Traveler refers to as "them"? To whom did he promise that he would come and keep his word? While many readers are certain that the Listeners are ghosts, they are still confused when it comes to the identity of the mysterious "them."
Finally, one might wonder who the Traveler himself might be. At first, we are lead to believe that he is an ordinary man. But is he? Maybe the Traveler is also a ghost, which would explain why no one can hear him at first, and he must keep his promise to "them" so that he can transcend into the afterlife. Some have even gone as far as comparing the Traveler to God or some other divine entity. Others say that he represents the entire human race, wanting to know what the meaning of life is and to understand why we are who we are. Nonetheless, readers (much like the Traveler) are left with no answers and must solve the mystery on their own, which means that a final resolution of the plot is absent.