🎤POEM: “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare

“The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare, English (1873-1956)

Imagine you are a weary traveler commissioned to deliver an urgent message to the inhabitants of a remote house, deep, deep in a forest. It is a cold, windy night. You have been riding your horse for several hours. You hear the groaning and snapping of branches above your head and the rustling of dead leaves on the forest floor. At last, you reach your destination. The moon peeps out from behind the clouds. You see the house–a tall, ghostly structure. You dismount your horse and climb the creaking wooden steps to the front door. You hesitate before knocking, for you do not see any lights through the cracks of the boarded windows. Then you speak (please press the PLAY button below).

There is a sense of mystery in de la Mare’s poem, “The Listeners.” We experience the traveler’s fear, puzzlement, and disappointment when no one answers his knocks. He is angry and defiant when he bangs on the door a third time, saying, “Tell them I came, and no one answered, that I kept my word.”  I love de la Mare’s choice of language and imagery to describe the house. Inside, we can visualize the empty hall and the “faint moonbeams on the dark stair.” We feel the listeners’ stillness, their strangeness, as the traveler’s voice echoes “through the shadowiness of the still house.”  In contrast, there is more activity outside, in the world of the living. De la Mare describes the window sill as “leaf-fringed.” We see the traveler’s gray eyes, the moonlit door, and the starry sky.

“And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor.”
de la Mare

We hear a bird flying over the traveler’s head, disturbing his reverie, the horse champing the grass, and the traveler’s repeated knocking and pleas for attention. At the end of the poem, we hear him mount his horse, the clang of the metal stirrups, and the plunging iron horseshoes on the stones. Finally, de la Mare leaves the reader stranded outside the house, watching the traveler ride away, as the silence surges “softly backward.”

De la Mare invites us into his disturbing, dreamlike forest and his haunted house.  At first, we are observers, then WE become the listeners, hiding in the house or among the dark trees. We sympathize with the traveler but cannot help him, and de la Mare leaves us behind to linger with the phantoms.  This poem is a feast for the senses and our imaginations. It is important to read the poem aloud to experience the impact of de la Mare’s language.  You can find the text of this poem at poetryfoundation.org.

Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare

About Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist.  He wrote ghost stories and children’s fairy tales.  A lot of his work has supernatural elements where he explores how the external world affects the imagination.  “The Listeners” is his most famous poem in this category.  I also like “The Owl” where the poet explores the unknown region between sleep and death.

What is your favorite scary poem?  Did you enjoy this review and audio of “The Listeners”?  I would value your opinion in the comment box.  Thank you.

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Sarah M. Fredericks (c) 2015

Carpe Librum! Seize the Book, and let the page-turning begin.

14 Comments

Filed under AUDIO🎤, England, HALLOWE'EN, POEM

14 responses to “🎤POEM: “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare

  1. Marcus

    Hey Sarah,

    That was great! You read so well, and your voice has a sonorous quality about it, calm, and urgent too where needs be. This is a great poem. The other ‘listener’ i.e. me (!!) is standing by the house – at least I feel I am – listening to you speaking, and almost, I suppose, imploring the listeners in the house. I can imagine the horse, out of breath and moving about, as horses tend to do (I have gone horseback riding many times in my life, so I can understand how the rider has to behave).

    When I read this poem, I think about ‘apparently’ derelict houses I have come across over my lifetime, while out on a walk, and I wonder what spirits or human essence has been left behind. Is anything truly ’empty’?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Marcus,

      I am glad you enjoyed my recording. I always read poetry aloud, instead of rushing through poems in silence. Not only can I enjoy the printed word, but I can better understand the poet’s mind by speaking his or her words and listening to the wonderful mixture of sounds, alliteration (ie. silence surged softly backwards), and onomatopoeia (ie. ‘champed’ the grasses and ‘smote’ upon the door).

      I know what you mean about the eerie feeling some derelict houses have. When I was a child, I went blackberry picking down the Six Cross Roads with my friend Anne (on the outskirts of Waterford City). We used to pass a small derelict cottage on the way. The spavined slate roof was full of holes, and tall weeds sprouted from every crevice. The only inhabitants, or so we thought, were the raucous crows who nested in the crumbling chimney and wheeled overhead to scare off intruders. The windows were broken, and we contributed to their sorry state by throwing stones at the remaining shards. I remember it had a red door (I wonder why so many people in Ireland paint their front doors red), and it hung like a scarecrow on the rusty hinges, half open, daring children to enter the cottage. Of course, we often ventured inside, sat on the cold muddy ground and scared each other witless with ghost stories. It was a two roomed cottage, empty, dark, and damp, with stone walls and a small fireplace at one end. There was no evidence of anyone having lived there for a long time, no furniture or crockery, no pictures over the fireplace, or the remnants of a meal in a skillet pot. But the empty cottage had a very sad feeling inside. I was sure a family had died there. On one visit, I remember telling Anne that maybe we were being watched by weeping ghosts in the rafters (Listeners?). Anne started to cry, so we left the cottage and ran out into the sunshine to pick our blackberries.

      Now, forty years later, I am sure our haunted house is not there anymore. Perhaps a land developer has built “luxury townhomes” in the field. The question is, when the Irish winds howl late at night, and the unremitting rain pelts on the modern double-glazed windows, do the new inhabitants feel like they are being watched…or listened to by the Ghost of the Six Cross Roads? 😨😱👻

      Sarah

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  2. Marcus

    Sarah,

    You asked about a favourite scary poem. I couldn’t think of any that has left a mark. I wrote one called “The Ghost on the Stair.” I won’t copy all of it here – just a few select lines.
    The first line is “It dashed from the ghost on the stair…”

    People passed it on the stair-but quickly-and in fear
    Some swore about what they saw
    More swore never to live there
    And through the years the ghost it cried unseen bitter tears

    “You have nothing to fear” it mouthed unheard, “and fear is the least of my woes
    My penance is that I am here
    When all those years ago
    The last thought through my mind was that it would be my last”

    “Look up high and see the cord-look down at its end about my neck
    Beware the choices that you make-the outcome a greater force controls
    Had I a natural end I would not have to say
    That I am the ghost on the stair
    And I will not be dashing anywhere…”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Marcus,

      I enjoyed your excerpt from “The Ghost on the Stair.” Thank you for sharing it.😊 Your poem brought to mind Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Canterville Ghost,” although Sir Simon did not hang himself. He died of starvation for killing his wife (at the hands of his brothers-in-law).

      I would like to read your full poem. Can you email it to me?
      Sarah

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  3. One of the most haunting and enigmatic poems of the canon, but its beauty goes way beyond an alliterative, rhythmical way to say “boo”. To paraphrase: Tell them I came…that I kept my word. Who are “they”? What was his “word”? Why is Traveller capitalized? Why the urgency of the poem? Those lines and questions linger in the dark, still air, long after the plunging hoofs are gone. Great choice, Sarah.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Al,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on “The Listeners.” Yes, de la Mare’s poem poses more questions than it answers. I like to think that the rider is a highwayman who arrives at the ghostly house for a rendezvous with other highwaymen, prior to embarking on an adventure. Perhaps he comes too late, or he comes to the wrong house. Not only is he a traveller, in the real sense, but “Traveller” is his code name. We shall never know. De la Mare leaves our questions unanswered; the sense of mystery forces us to use our imaginations.

      “The Listeners” brings to mind another of my favorite autumn poems: “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. The setting is similar – a dark, windy night. Here is the first verse. (Thanks to Miss Moore who made us all learn some of these verses by heart back in the seventies😊)

      “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
      The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
      The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
      And the highwayman came riding – riding – riding –
      Up to the old inn door.”
      Alfred Noyes

      Warmest regards
      Sarah

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  4. This is an intriguing poem, Sarah, and a great reading. “Tam O’Shanter” by Robert Burns is my favourite for Hallowe’en. I remember hearing one of the scariest poems on the radio – “Goblin Market” by Christina Rosetti. May you be safe from ghoulies & ghosties & things that go bump in the night at Samhain!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Marie,

      Thank you for your kind words. I am a fan of all of Burns’ poems (my Irish mother carried a miniature volume of his verse in her handbag). I read Tam O’ Shanter a long time ago. Time to read it again!

      I am not familiar with Christina Rosetti’s poem, “Goblin Market,” so after a little research, I found an interesting review by Carol Rumen of The Guardian. I am fascinated by the poem’s fairytale-like story line and intrigued by the evil little goblins. I must track down a copy of the full poem for my collection. Here is the link.

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jun/25/poem-week-goblin-market-rossetti

      I hope you had a goblin and ghoul free Samhain in Scotland last night Marie.🎃😨😱

      Warmest regards
      Sarah

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  5. Richard Kervick

    Really enjoyed this post Sarah. I like spooky poems and stories. I must investigate de la Mare’s work, now that you’ve whetted my appetite.😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Richard,
      I am glad you liked my “spooky” audio and review of de la Mare’s poem. Hallowe’en brings to mind Edgar Allen Poe’s horror stories. I think it is time to record an excerpt from “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Watch this space!
      Regards
      Sarah

      Like

  6. Great read and listening!
    We wish you a ghostly great Halloween!
    The Fab Four of Cley,
    Dina

    Liked by 1 person

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