“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.
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.
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
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