Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners,” published in 1912, is one of de la Mare’s most famous poems and certainly one of his most atmospheric. The poem, focusing on the nighttime encounter between an unnamed “Traveller” and a house inhabited by mysterious “Listeners,” evokes a pervasive mood of suspense and intrigue owing not only to the elision in the narration, but also to the use of certain literary features.

This is a poem that relies entirely upon the reader’s imagination. The key characters—the Listeners, the Traveller, and the mysterious “Them” for whom the Traveller has a message—are all unnamed and are very sparsely described. We know nothing about the Traveller except that his purpose on this particular night is to travel; the Listeners, meanwhile, are tasked with listening to him as he declares that he has kept his “word.” We do not know what “word” he is keeping, nor to whom he is keeping it. We do not know anything about the Traveller except that he is “lonely” and accompanied by his unconcerned horse. The one tiny element of description states that his eyes are “grey,” a color which seems deliberately chosen, as it is one which often stands in for uncertainty in literature, suggestive of a moral gray area or an issue that is blurry or unclear. It is as if the Traveller does not know what he is looking at. All he knows is that he feels the “strangeness” of those inside the house and believes he is not alone.

De la Mare relies heavily upon sound imagery and sound features in this poem to intensify the sense of atmosphere, something which is fitting, given the title and the focus. Words such as “knocking,” “smote,” “stirred,” and “shaken” help to create a semantic field of sound; we can imagine how these noises would sound in the “silence” of a forest by moonlight. The Traveller’s words go “echoing” through the house, and at the end of the poem, as he vanishes into the darkness, the Listeners are described listening to the “sound of iron on stone” and the “plunging hoofs” of the retreating horse. It seems no accident that these sounds are all described using active verbs, as if the introduction of noise to this scene is almost an act of violence upon it—the Listener has come from another world, “the world of men,” and his is a world of sounds rather than of silent listening. Alliteration in the narration, such as “forest’s ferny floor,” also helps tell the reader that sound is important in this poem: we should be paying attention, as the Listeners are, to what we are hearing, even if we do not really understand it.

At the poem’s end, we may not really know what promise is being kept on this night, nor who the people involved are. However, we certainly have a clear sense of place and a scene in which we can hear as well as the Listeners what is happening.

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