Why is Walter de La Mare’s poem called “The Listeners” instead of the “The Traveller?”

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Without the “host of phantom listeners” in the poem, there would be nothing exceptional about the narrative that it relates. Most of the mystery and most of the dramatic interest in the poem emanates from the “phantom listeners.” It is their “strangeness” and their “stillness” to which we are drawn.

The Traveller is really only important inasmuch as he acts as the medium by which we can be exposed to the listeners. It is significant that he affords us a limited, restricted perspective. We know only as much as he does, which is very little. He is a functional character, serving a limited but essential purpose.

At the end of the poem, the poet shifts the perspective from which the story is told, to the listeners inside the house. We finish the poem inside the house with the listeners, listening to the “plunging hoofs” of the Traveller’s horse fading into the distance, and the “silence surg[ing] softly backward” into the house once more. This perspective shift indicates that it is the strangeness of the listeners, not the Traveller, that the poet means to leave as the enduring impression in our minds.

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Walter de La Mare immediately calls attention to the “phantom listeners” described in the poem by using the title “The Listeners” instead of “The Traveller.” We first meet the traveler on dark lonely night as he approaches a dwelling that has turrets and ivy covered window ledges. “Is there anybody there? Said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlight door.” Walter de La Mare immediately has the reader thinking about who might answer. The reader knows who the traveller is but who is he calling to? 

After the traveller makes a second attempt to get an answer, the poet explains that there is silence still.

But only a host of phantom listeners

That dwelt in the lone house then

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight  

To that voice from the world of men:

He is speaking of the spirits of those who lived in the dwelling and the traveller as the only one left alive. The troubled traveller calls into the house one more time before he quickly leaves telling the listeners that he kept his promise to return. Silence once again surrounds the phantoms. The author wants the reader to question who the listeners might be, this is the mystery of the poem.

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