The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Listeners” is a single-stanza poem of thirty-six lines, rhyming abcb. The title suggests the focus of the poem: It is not on the poem’s human traveler, but on the phantom listeners who await him. The poem is written in the third person, to allow the reader to observe, objectively, the traveler first and then the listeners, and to remain behind with the listeners when the traveler hastily departs at the poem’s close.

The poem begins in medias res, with the traveler knocking on a moonlit door in an unknown place. It is this sense of the unknown, with all its ambiguities, that controls the tone and mood of the poem. The place in the forest where the traveler finds himself is deserted and overgrown with brambles; the sense of isolation and strangeness causes the lonely human visitor first to knock on the door of the turreted house, then to smite it, and finally to smite it even louder, as his cries receive no response.

One soon discovers, however, that it is only he who is perplexed and lonely in this nighttime scene; nature ignores the phantoms, as is seen by his horse contentedly champing the grasses and by the bird in the house’s turret being disturbed, not by anything eerie or frightening in the natural scene, but by his voice and loud knocking. The scene reinforces one of Walter de la Mare’s common themes: Human beings are estranged from both the natural and the social worlds, and are puzzled and even...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

De la Mare uses several poetic strategies to make “The Listeners” effective. His language, for example, is quite simple and ordinary, an apt contrast to the strange and eerie quality of the setting. None of his words causes a reader to search out their meanings in a dictionary; it is as if he wants to convince readers that the world he is portraying is the actual world in which they live. With the exception, perhaps, of the turret on the house, none of the concrete details is exotic or arcane. The strangeness, in other words, is in the atmosphere created by the mind of the traveler, not in ordinary reality.

The repetition of words is also effective: knocking, still and stillness, and listening are prominent. There is a general absence of metaphor and simile as well; it is the language of the setting itself, dark, empty, still, listening, which creates a mood of sadness, loneliness, and emptiness.

It is perhaps the rhythm, however, which is the most striking stylistic component: de la Mare uses a basically anapestic rhythm (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable), more commonly used in rollicking ballads or sea chanteys, to communicate a sense of urgency and anxiety in the situation. Indeed, for many readers, it is difficult to be left behind in the forest at the poem’s end. When the traveler leaves, one wishes to leave with him, rather than to stay behind with the phantom listeners.