The Listeners Themes
The three main themes in “The Listeners” are the supernatural, mystery and the unspoken, and nature.
- The supernatural: The poem's titular “listeners” are “phantoms,” separated from “the world of men.”
- Mystery and the unspoken: The poem leaves questions about the identities of its characters and the purpose of the Traveller's journey unanswered.
- Nature: The stillness of the natural world is disturbed by the Traveller's intrusion.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Perhaps the key theme in Walter de la Mare’s gloriously atmospheric poem “The Listeners” is that of the supernatural. The titular Listeners are described as “phantom,” suggesting that they are not of this world—we do not know whether they are the ghosts of people who once lived in the house or simply some other kind of supernatural being, but they are clearly separated from the “lonely” Traveller by some kind of break between worlds—his world is the world “of men,” and although the Listeners can hear him, they do not, or cannot, respond to what he says in terms we would understand.
However, there is clearly some kind of otherworldly, eerie communication possible between these Listeners and the mortal man who has come to visit them. The Traveller goes on speaking into the empty house even though he knows it to be empty because he feels their “strangeness,” their “stillness,” giving some indication that there is somebody listening to him. The Traveller also seems to believe that, whoever the listeners are, they are capable of passing on the message he has come to deliver.
Mystery and the Unspoken
The Traveller and the Listeners, the major characters in the poem, are unnamed. They are defined by their purpose—the Listeners exist to hear what is said by others; the Traveller’s purpose is to reach this house and thus fulfill his “word.” However, we do not know anything about him, other than that his eyes are gray and he has brought a horse with him. We do not know who he is hoping to find in the house, nor what he has promised, nor even to whom he has promised anything. We can infer that he has promised to return to this house at some point, but beyond this, we are left to imagine for ourselves what might have brought the man to this house in the forest, who he is, and to whom it is he wants the Listeners to pass on his message. This makes the poem haunting, as the reader is inclined to think about these unanswered questions long after reading it.
The poem focuses on nature—particularly the stillness and otherworldliness of nature in the dark. The horse, symbolic of the animal kingdom, is completely uninterested in everything that is happening—he feels nothing strange emanating from the house; he simply “champ[s] the grasses” of the forest floor and waits for instruction. Meanwhile, the birds in the house are disturbed by the Traveller’s approach, flying up out of the turret—the Traveller is the one who should not be there. In the quiet of this “moonlit” night, it is as if the unknown Listeners are simply another part of the natural world, as the house is returned to the forest; the Traveller is aware that he, as a representative of humans, is the intruder, while all around him, nature goes on forever, uncaring of human pacts and bargains.