March 27 Walter de la Mare: The Listeners

I had a room in a house when I was in school where the doorknob was missing, so I grabbed a random scrap of paper and covered up the hole. The random scrap had this poem on it, so I read it ever day for two years.

For the longest time, I thought it was kind of a stupid poem, because it seemed to be about a crazy guy knocking on a door, paranoid that people could hear him. But the more I read the poem, the more I realized that this was not so. There was something alive inside the poem. This was something neither he nor I could see, hear, taste, smell or touch, but we could feel its presence creeping about in the poem’s words – something hidden between its lines watching and waiting and listening.

The house I was in was an old Victorian house, perhaps it too had listeners of its own. Perhaps I became haunted by a poem.

The Listeners

by Walter do la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray 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
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head: –
“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:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Is anybody out there?

A final note: This poem reminds me of the first part of the book Dracula where Johnathan Harker is lost in the Romanian back-country and stumbles upon the Count’s crumbling castle. He too hears voices and scratches in the night. There are listeners waiting for him, but never stirring – hungry, salivating listeners who are under the Count’s orders not to move.

I thought I would post some of the textbook’s questions attached to this, because they’re interesting and worth contemplating. It asks what you think the word “listeners” in the title means before you read the poem and after (still creepy)? What does the word “turret” suggest? And why does a bird fly from it? Why a “moonlit” door, instead of just a door? What is the Traveler’s story? Who is he? What promise is he keeping? What brought him to the castle? Why do you think so little happens in this poem? Does the lack of action suggest something?


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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