Last Updated on June 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464
The title of this poem introduces some of the more mysterious characters described over the course of Walter de la Mare’s narration: the Listeners. In keeping with the atmosphere of the poem, the speaker gives away very little about who these people are, or even whether they are, in fact, people at all. We know that they are, in some way, “phantom” and that they live in the house as it stands abandoned in the middle of a forest. We do not know what their purpose is in waiting in the house; they seem to have some kind of connection to the visitor who comes to their door, because even though they are unable or unwilling actually to speak to him, they do give some kind of response to the voice “from the world of men.” The Listeners may be ghosts of people who once lived in the house, or they may be some other kind of entity entirely, but their “strangeness” and “stillness” are able to communicate their presence, in some mysterious way, to the Traveller when he calls to them.
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The Traveller has come to the house on horseback, tasked with some strange purpose of which we know very little. He knocks upon the door of the house and seems to be looking for someone—he is very insistent that it be known that he has “kept” his “word.” We aren’t told what this promise is—why has he promised to come to this house, which is now empty? He has “grey eyes” and is “perplexed” by what he finds, which suggests he may be surprised to find the house now empty. At the same time, he seems able to detect that there are beings of a sort in the house, because he prevails upon them to pass on his message, even though nobody has come down to open the door to him. When he leaves at the end of the poem, it is at speed, his horse’s hooves “plunging,” as if the eerie atmosphere of the forest has felt oppressive to him.
The other unnamed group in this poem is “them.” The Traveller has made a promise to this group. He is eager that the Listeners tell “them” that he has come to the house and thus kept his word. There is a suggestion, therefore, that the Listeners are separate to “them” but that they must understand what is meant by this.
All in all, this is a poem which is most effective exactly because of how little we know about any of the people involved. It is up to us to imagine what the Traveller is doing out here in the woods and what he promised in the past—and to whom.