The Listeners by Walter De La Mare

The poem “The Listeners” is written by the well known modern poet, Walter De La Mare. His literary fame mainly revolves around this poem and works for children. Supernaturalism is a predominant element found in his writings and has written many ghost stories, the most famous being ‘The Eight Tales”.

“The Listeners” is a brilliant piece of literature through which ‘Walter De La Mare’ is endeavouring to narrate an incident of a promise that was kept but was not reciprocated. It is a poem which compels the readers to derive interpretations for this poem. The atmosphere created in this poem is diabolic and haunted, and it is solely up to the reader to bring this poem to life.

The poet is talking about a weary horse rider who eventually reaches his destination in the darkest hour of the night. The moonlight shining bright and bathing a particular house in its glory. Dismounting from the horse, the rider wastes no time in knocking at the mysterious door. The horse relieved of its burden eats the grass to its heart’s content. The forest floor covered with plants. In this atmosphere of absolute stillness, the sounds that are heard are that of the horses chewing the grass and a bird scarring out of the tower of the mansion. It seemed that the bird was awakened by the arrival of the traveller and the supernatural phenomena within the house.

Baffled and perplexed by no response from the depth of the house, the traveller knocked the door for the second time.

Despite the second attempt, no one moved downward from the mansion towards the traveller, nor did a keen welcoming voice call out from the border of the window, laced with leaves.

Neither did anybody bent out of the window to know who the caller might be at the unearthly hour. The traveller expected at least someone to open the ground floor window, peep and stare into the dull and worried eyes of the traveller. The traveller stood transfixed and flustered and sound of silence became his patient listener. But, it seemed that whoever lived in that moonlit solitary house could only acknowledge the presence of the traveller by a deeper shade of silence. The world of the immortals within the house was moved by the only mortal sound around. The only witness to this sight was his horse and the stream of moonlight that unoccupied hall and ascended those uncanny stairs. It is not that the traveller was not received by anyone but it so happened that they have become the inhabitants of the next world. The spirits within the house heard each word of the caller and were disturbed in their stark silence as the words he spoke penetrated their soul. The supernatural aspect of the house casts a shadow on the traveller who now stands frozen with confusion and fright. The absence of any kind of sound or movement sends a chill up his spine. While the meeting between the mortals and the immortals was progressing, his horse continued eating grass under the shield of the stars and the trees unmoved by the events of the night. Baffled and frustrated, the weary traveller knocks a third time. He screams to the inhabitants of the house to tell them that he was present and he did not fail to keep his promise. The listeners did not respond in any way and the silence kept growing graver, unable to meet the requirements of the traveller and bound by unforeseen circumstances, the listeners heard him departing as he mounted his horse and the sound of the horse was heard on the cobbled ground. With his departure, the sounds of silence moved forward and upward, without failing to notice the unsteady movement and the uncontrollable steps of the horse and its rider.

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The poet through this poem basically talks about keeping one’s promises and he also reflects the inability of the mortals to communicate with the immortals who died before fulfilling their promises.

The Listeners by Walter De La Mary


CHAMPED: Another word for chomped

TURRET: A small tower on top of a larger tower or at the corner of a building or wall, typically of a castle.

SMOTE: Past tense of smite, an old-fashioned word for striking with a firm blow

HOST: A large group


CROPPING: Cutting or harvesting

SPAKE: An old-fashioned word that means spoke

Poetic Techniques of “The Listeners”

1. Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds within close proximity, usually in consecutive words within the same sentence or line e.g.;

‘she sells seashells on the seashore’,

‘And the furrow followed free’.

Examples of Alliteration in the poem “The Listener” are

‘Forest’s ferny floor’, ‘Stood perplexed and still’, ‘stirred and shaken’, ‘suddenly smote the door’, ‘louder and lifted’, ‘Silence surged softly backward’.

2. Onomatopoeia: When sounds are spelt out as words, or when words describing sounds actually sound like the sounds they describe, e.g. ‘Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed’, ‘the hissing of the snake and the buzzing of the bee disturbed me’.

Onomatopoeia words in the poem are: ‘Chomped’, ‘Smote’, ‘Echoing’, ‘plunging’

3. Binary Image: when the poet makes use of two contrasting things or ideas, it is known as binary technique. It is used to give more poetic weight to the lines that have been written e.g.‘Hot and Cold’, ‘new and old’, ‘thick and thin’, summer and winter’.

The use of two binary images has been done in the poem.

‘Perplexed and still’, ‘leaned over and looked into’.

4. Metaphor: A host of pantomime listeners and the voice of worlds of men

Theme of The Poem

Walter de la Mare’s supernatural poem The Listeners is considered the quintessence of his poetic genius. The most celebrated uncanny feeling and ‘strangeness’ has been the pivotal theme of this particular poem. In this context, it should be mentioned that the lone traveller who experiences the strangeness in his heart is also baffled by communication failure and despondency of the unfulfillment of a promise as indicated in the poem. Did his regressed emotions of the past incidents, or some guilt of breaking a promise submerged deep in his unconscious due to regression and resulted in an uncanny feeling? Were those thronging phantom listeners external manifestation of the traveller’s regressed self? In terms of the Freudian concept of ‘uncanny’ the prefix – ‘un’ is a token of regression. Depending upon his theory this article is an attempt to vindicate the traveller’s uncanny strangeness and the phantom listeners to be the projection of the repressed inner self and unsettled notions of a unified personality.

Explanation of The Poem

The listeners, a narrative poem delineating supernatural ambience within, is a poem composed by Walter de la Mare, first published in London by Constable and Company in The listeners and other poems, a collection of Walter de la Mare’s verses in 1912. The central attraction of the poem is its supernatural element and gothic atmosphere. In addition to it, there remains a vivid description of the traveller’s psychological reaction upon confronting the strangeness of the place on a moonlit night.

The poem initiates with the depiction of a haunted and desolate house where a lone traveller arrives with a predetermined purpose. The entire atmosphere evokes a mysterious sense of horror and strangeness with its brilliant juxtaposition of silence and sound. It is evident from the description that the house is deserted by human and a strange presence of a host of phantom listeners has been depicted by the poet. These listeners are unable to make successful communication. They are at the receiving end. After knocking on the door twice the traveller left dishearted, but he left a message that he kept his promise. The entire effort of communication was on the part of the traveller ending in his assertion of fulfilling his promise. But the promise he mentioned there was never actually maintained. It is the traveller himself who implies the fulfilment in a condolatory tone. This consolation provided by him is the mark of his failure. The nature of this nocturnal visit of the traveller remains an unknown matter of conjecture. Apart from that why should he feel so “perplexed”? He left a message – ‘tell them I came and no one answered/that I kept my word.” that implicates that he was conscious of the presence of those phantom listeners who were responsible for the uncanny feeling he experienced. Were these phantom listeners projection of his regressed self? As it has been mentioned in Freud’s expounded the theory of ‘uncanny’ that uncanny feeling is a result of repression.

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Repression is a defence mechanism to maintain a balanced personality. To put it more specifically it is a conscious process of forgetting unpleasant and undesirable events of life. It is an involuntary and spontaneous exclusion of those memories from the conscious awareness which are disturbing for the individual. Despite trying hard to suppress them they may invade the consciousness in disguised form. In a menacing form, those feelings may recur and such recurrence unsettles the person’s mind. The traveller’s uncanny feelings may result from such regressive actions of the past. His predicament reminds Macbeth’s encounter with the witches upon the heath in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Though his associate Banquo witnessed the incident but critics believe that the witches were an external manifestation of Macbeth’s own inarticulate desires.

‘Uncanny’ is a feeling generated for something unfamiliar or incongruous. According to Freud ‘uncanny’ is familiar yet incongruous, as it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by an object. Freud’s revelation enlightened this in his essay on The Uncanny(1919) the German word unheimlich (uncanny, unfamiliar) and Heimlich(familiar, homely) are opposite but close in meaning, if not identical since Heimlich means apparently belonging to the house also simultaneously juxtaposes the sense of being concealed, hidden, kept from sight. He further relates uncanny first to the survival of the unconscious of a primitive and subsequently repressed animistic mythological and mystic view of the world. Secondly the occurrence of repetition, coincidence and doubles are related to uncanny. He confirms that these are the result of repressed experiences in infancy. Otto Fenichel opines that ‘if the disappearance of the original aim from consciousness is called repression, then every sublimation is repression.’Lacan also stressed the role of the signifier in repression-‘the primal repressed is the signifier-examining how the symptom is constituted based on primal repression of the ‘unterdruckung of the binary signifier…the necessary fall of the first signifier’. While interpreting the traveller’s uncanny feeling or unfamiliar experience his repetitive actions testify a great deal as he repeats the question twice, ‘Is there anybody there?’ He smote on the door twice that leads us to the conclusion of repetitive compulsion on the part of the traveller (Freud’s theory foregrounding Jung’s notion of synchronicity).

The traveller’s assertion of keeping his promise probably made to the dwellers of the house incites mysterious strangeness. Nothing is implied distinctly or in specific terms about the promise, like-what was the promise? To whom was it made? Why he came at midnight to see the dwellers of the house? Whatever the answers may be it engenders an all-encompassing feeling of failure, a failure that also engulfs the traveller’s mind. Virtually the uncanny feeling of the traveller may be the reflection of his once repressed experiences or unfulfilled desires. The shock of failed communication, inability to fulfil his promise, such baffled efforts on the part of the traveller might have been experienced by him before and technically repressed into his unconscious. Those repressed memories surged into the surface invading the conscious after encountering the strange milieu of the mansion on a moonlit night. The revival of those feelings caused anxiety which makes him perplexed and still. When repression has rendered it strange and unfamiliar anxiety for uncanny is rediscovered. As Freud justified that certain triggers retrieve childhood memory, conflicts, or primitive beliefs overcome by a person but suddenly seemingly receive renewed affirmation. The atmosphere of the mansion is largely responsible for the resurrection of those submerged uncanny feelings, repressed fears, and suspicions. Recurrence of suppressed experiences generated that uncanny feeling in the perplexed traveller’s mind.

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Questions and Answers

Q1. Why did the traveller knock at the door?
Answer: According to the atmosphere with which the poem begins, the traveller Knocked at the door for he wanted to meet somebody there with whom he seemed to have promised to come perhaps after a long gap of time.

Q2. Did anybody answer his Knock?
Answer: The traveller kept sitting at the door but nobody answered his knock.

Q3. What does the poet refer to as the voice from the world of men?
Answer: The poet refers “the voice from the world of men” as the voice of the traveller who belonged to the world of humans.

Q4. Explain the phrase “perplexed and still”
Answer: The phrase ‘perplexed and still’ refers to the feelings of the traveller after not having been responded at his constant sitting. He feels totally Chaotic and stands without moving i.e.,perplexed and none has come out to see him.

Q5. What time of the day is described in the poem? Pick out the words that suggest this.
Answer: It is the night time. It is suggested by the use of the words as under:-
‘The moonlit door, the moonlight beams, faint moon, dark stair’ dark turf and starred sky.

Q6. List out the words that have been used to describe the listeners. What kind of picture is created by these words? Do you think they are ordinary people?
Answer: The poet has described the listeners in fascinating and attractive words like-a host of phantom listeners, their strangeness, their stiffness etc.

These words create the picture of a mysterious place around which everything is still and silent.

The listeners are no ordinary people. If they had been so, they would have come out and met the traveller. They were most probably ghosts for according to the poet the traveller’s voice was the only voice from the world of men.

Q7. Why have been the hoofs of the horse been described as ‘plunging’? The
Answer: The hoofs of the horse have been described as plunging to bring out the picture of the traveler being in a tremendous hurry. The traveller is fleeing from the place which is all mysterious and eerie and weird.

Q8. What is the effect created by the words the silence surged softly backwards?
Answer: The words create the effect of the immediate returning of the silence after the departure of the traveller on his horse. The silence comes back and the surroundings again plunge in quite.

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