Last Updated September 6, 2023.
“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
The opening lines of Walter de la Mare’s poem “The Listeners” introduce the primary character, a mysterious “Traveller” knocking on the door of a lonely, abandoned home deep in the forest. Ambiguity is the primary charm of “The Listeners.” Little is known about the Traveller’s identity or motivations. The only clue as to the identity of the Traveller is that he is a man, evidenced by the use of masculine pronouns throughout the poem. The only mention of his appearance is “grey eyes.” No other hints are initially offered to explain his strange behavior of knocking on the door of an abandoned home during the middle of the night. The repeated question “Is there anybody there?” and the knocking serve to build tension throughout the poem as the enigma of the Traveller’s purpose deepens.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
As the Traveller knocks with increasing urgency and impatience, Walter de la Mare reveals that the man is not alone. Ghostly beings are present in the house and are listening to the knocking of the stranger. The word “host” reveals that there are many Listeners. The word “phantom” clearly indicates a supernatural element to these beings haunting the crumbling mansion. This supernatural nature of the Listeners is reinforced when they are described as hearing the “voice from the world of men,” which shows that they are inhuman. As with the Traveller, few clues are given to explain who these Listeners are or why they inhabit this particular house.
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
These lines provide the clearest window into the Traveler’s purpose. Apparently, the Traveler made a pact with someone, or something, associated with the decaying house. He has come to the rotting home to fulfill his part of the agreement. The most intriguing ambiguity in these lines is the use of the pronoun “them.” Who constitutes “them” is the greatest mystery of “The Listeners.” Was the Traveller’s deal with the Listeners? The former occupants of the home? Someone else? It is impossible to answer these questions definitively, but we do know that the Traveller leaves believing his duty is finished and his debt is paid.