Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Listeners” is a poem about an unsuccessful quest for clarity and meaning in an inscrutable universe. Like Herman Melville and Stephen Crane, Walter de la Mare sees humans caught in a web of circumstance that drastically limits their personal freedom and prevents them from making full connections with either nature or other people. Yet, paradoxically, it is this yearning for a harmony and wholeness in the natural and social worlds which is always just out of reach that convinces people that personal integrity and fidelity to commitments, responsibilities, and attachments is what makes them most human, and what keeps them from the dark terrors of a universe which, while not openly hostile or malevolent, still ignores the human presence.

One question which occurs to many readers is why the poem is entitled “The Listeners” and not “The Traveler,” since the initial focus is on the human traveler who comes to this distant and lonely scene. Although the focus is at first centered on “the one man left awake” or alive (line 32) who speaks with a “voice from the world of men” (line 16), that focus shifts in an important way to the “host of phantom listeners” (line 13) that dwell in this strange house. These listeners not only listen but also stand “thronging” (line 17) the dark stair that goes down to an empty hall, yet they answer his cries only with their “stillness” (line 22). Are they the ghosts of those persons the traveler...

(The entire section is 462 words.)