The Listeners Summary
“The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare is a poem about a man who is knocking on the door of a house in the forest, calling out for anyone who is there. He is heard only by a host of phantom listeners, whose silent presence he can sense.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452
“The Listeners” is one of Walter de la Mare’s most well-known poems and has been much anthologized. Written without stanza breaks, it utilizes a regular rhyme scheme within which the second and fourth line of each group of four lines rhyme with each other. The meter is often said to replicate that of a horse moving through the forest, adding to the atmosphere created by the piece as a whole.
The first line of the poem is a question posed by the mysterious and unnamed Traveller, who is the protagonist: “Is there anybody there?” The Traveller, we learn, is standing with his horse in the “silence” of a “moonlit” night. We are told that he is in a forest, and we know nothing is moving around him, as his horse is content simply to “champ the grasses” of the forest floor. There are animals afoot, such as a bird disturbed by the knocking which flies out of the “turret” above the head of the Traveller. But he seems to be the only human in the area, and we do not know who he is hoping to find in the house.
The speaker goes on to specify that nobody comes to answer the Traveller’s call—he is “perplexed and still,” and his eyes, perhaps symbolic of his confusion and uncertainty, are “grey,” a color which speaks of gray areas and obfuscation. However, his voice does not go unheard—on the contrary, there are a “host of phantom listeners” in the house who have heard him.
The Traveller seems to detect that these beings, whatever they are, are in the house—he feels their “strangeness . . . answering his cry,” and as such, he presses on with his mysterious task, whatever it may be. He knocks upon the door again and asks of those who are in the house and may have heard him that they pass his message on—he says that he has kept his word and asks the listeners to tell “them” that the Traveller has come, “and no one answered.”
The Listeners do not respond to this second appeal from the Traveller, either, but the poem leaves us with the image of them listening to him as he retreats, the Traveller “the one man left awake” disappearing into the gloom, leaving only the sound of his horse’s hooves ringing on the ground as he departs.
The poem raises more questions than it answers—what was the “word” the Traveller wanted to keep, and to whom was he keeping his word? Who are “they,” and who are the Listeners? De la Mare does not tell us, and this is part of what makes the poem so engaging, intriguing, and effective.