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The Listeners
By Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting and Tone
Characters
Narration
Rhyme Scheme
Meter
Text and Notes
Themes
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Author's Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."The Listeners" is narrative poem centering a traveler's encounter with the supernatural. It was first published in London in 1912 by Constable and Company in The Listeners and Other Poems, a collection of Walter de la Mare's verses.

Setting and Tone

.......The action takes place late on a moonlit evening at a dwelling in a forest. The time is the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The tone is serious and the atmosphere is eerie and otherworldly.

Characters

The Traveller: A man who arrives on horseback late at night to call at a dwelling in a forest. When he pounds on the door, no one answers.
The Listeners: Phantoms inside the dwelling who listen to the Traveller speaking as he pounds on the door. They do not respond to him. 
Them: The people that the Traveller came to see (line 27). However, these people do not respond, possibly because they are sleeping, they do not wish to see the Traveller, or they are now living elsewhere. It is also possible that they died and became the phantom listeners.

Summary

.......A man identified as u0093the Travelleru0094 arrives on horseback late at night to call at a forest dwelling. Its turret suggests that it is a mansion or château. 
.......The traveler knocks on the door, asking, u0093Is anybody there?u0094 Spiritsu0097a u0093hostu0094 of themu0097gather on steps leading downstairs to listen, but no one answers the door. The traveler knocks again. Still, no one respondsu0097either by answering the door or looking out a window. Somehow sensing the presence of the unearthly listeners inside, the traveler says, u0093Tell them I came, and no one answered / That I kept my word.u0094

Narration

.......The narrator, or speaker, presents the story in third-person point of view, describing what is taking place outside the house and what is taking place inside the house. 

Rhyme Scheme

.......The rhyming lines are 2 and 4, 6 and 8, 10 and 12, 14 and 16, and so on. All the rhymes are masculine rather than feminine. In masculine rhyme, only the last syllable of one line rhymes with the last syllable of another line, as in lines 2 and 4 (door and floor) and 6 and 8 (head and said). In feminine rhyme, the last two syllables of one line rhyme with the last two syllables of another line, as in ringing and singing.

Meter

.......The line lengths range from six to fourteen syllables. Most of the lines combine anapests and iambs, as in line 4:

....Anapest...................Iamb..................Iamb
Of the FOR..|..est's FERN..|..y FLOOR

Some lines contain an incomplete final foot (catalexis), as in line 21

.....Anapest....................Anapest........................Iamb..................Incomplete
And he FELT..|..in his HEART..|..their STRANGE..|..ness
 

Text

u0091Is there anybody there?u0092 said the Traveller, 
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed1 the grasses 
   Of the forestu0092s ferny2 floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,3.....................................
   Above the Travelleru0092s head:
And he smote4 upon the door again a second time; 
   u0091Is there anybody there?u0092 he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller; 
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill......................................10
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes, 
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners 
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight.........................15
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair, 
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening5 in an air stirred and shaken 
   By the lonely Travelleru0092s call.............................................20
And he felt in his heart their strangeness, 
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping6 the dark turf, 
   u0092Neath the starred and leafy sky;7
For he suddenly smote on the door, even..............................25
   Louder, and lifted his head:u0097
u0091Tell them I came, and no one answered, 
   That I kept my word,u0092 he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners, 
   Though every word he spake.............................................30
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house 
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup, 
   And the sound of iron on stone,8
And how the silence surged softly backward,.........................35
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Notes

1...champed: Chewed.
2...ferny: Abounding with ferns.
3...turret: Cylindrical tower rising from a building.
4...smote: Struck; pounded.
5...Hearkening: Listening carefully; paying close attention.
6...cropping: Feeding on; biting off
7...leafy sky: Leaves silhouetted against the sky.
8...sound of iron on stone: Sound of horseshoes striking the pavement.

Themes

Supernatural Eavesdropping

.......When we are alone in a house or a desolate tract of country, many of us sometimes sense that a ghostly presence is observing us. Such moments tend to occur when the sun is down, the moon is up, and an eerie stillness surrounds us. In u0093The Listeners,u0094 the man identified as u0093the Travelleru0094 senses that otherworldly beings are eavesdropping on him. And he responds to them. They do not respond to him, however. They are there only to listen.

Mystery

.......The poem is a metaphor for the mysteries we ourselves encounter as listeners or as callers rapping at a door. We go through life asking why, and then seek answers. But we do not always get them, whether we are looking for them in religion, science, social interaction, or in ourselves. 
 

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

forestu0092s ferny floor (line 4)
smote upon the door again a second time (line 7)
suddenly smote (line 25)
Louder, and lifted his head (line 26)
silence surged softly backward (line 35)
Anaphora
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight 
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair, 
   That goes down to the empty hall
Metaphor
in an air stirred and shaken
Comparison of the air to a thing that can be shaken
Paradox
Their stillness answering his cry
Stillness (inaudibility) is giving an answer.

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup, 
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward (lines 33-37)
They heard . . . how the silence surged. (One cannot hear silence.)

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a short poem with an eerie setting. The topic is open. 
  • In your opinion, who are the people (or entities) that the Traveller came to see? Why did he want to see them? Explain your answers.
  • What do the lines centering on the bird and the horse contribute to the effect of the poem?
  • In line 20, does lonely modify Traveller's or call
  • Lines 21 and 22 report that "he [the Traveller] felt in his heart their strangeness, / Their stillness answering his cry." Does this line mean that the phantoms are communicating with the Traveller?
  • Lines 25 and 26 contain enjambment. Explain this literary device. For information on enjambment, click here.
  • Will the the Traveller make a return visit to the house?

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