SUMMARY: The Listeners by Walter John de la Mare: Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ is a stanza-long poem with thirty-six lines. On a moonlit night, a traveller comes on his horse and knocks at the door of a house. He demands that the door be opened, but receives no response to his call. There is a deathly silence within the house, and a bird flies out of the window above his head. The traveller knocks at the door again but is once more met with silence. He stands all alone with his horse which busies itself munching on the grass. His calls are heard by a group of spirits which dwell in the house. But they remain silent and motionless. Gradually, the traveller senses the eerie atmosphere and seems to come to the realization that no one will open the door for him. He had probably come there to fulfil a promise that he must have made to an inmate of the house in the past. So he declares at the top of his voice: ‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, That I kept my word.’ But his words echoed inside the silent house. The man finally gives up and mounts his horse to leave. As his horse gallops away into the darkness, the sound of its hooves on the stone is heard by the inmates of the house.
The poem has the theme of the supernatural and mystery. The traveller doesn’t fully accept the existence of spirits in the house. It shows the futility and narrow-mindedness of modern-age rationality. The poet attempts to convey through the poem that there is a parallel world of spirits which is invisible to human eyes and which we must be ready to accept.
A. Reference to Context
1. 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.’
Silence surged softly backwards
‘Is there anybody there?’
He suddenly smote on the door even louder.
a) Who do you think ‘them’ refers to in line 1?
b) What was the word that he has kept?
c) Is there a suggestion of impatience on the part of the traveller? What gives you this impression?
d) The poem is set in medieval times. Pick out a word and a description that tells us so.
Answer: a) Here, ‘them’ refers to the inmates of the house.
b) The traveller has kept a promise that he must have made to one of the inmates in the house in the past.
c) Yes, there is a suggestion of impatience on the part of the traveller. The gestures of the traveller that gives us the impression is that he was knocking on the door impatiently over and over and he was continuously asking aloud if there was anyone inside. He just wanted to fulfil his promise and leave the place as soon as possible.
d) The poet in the poem “The Listeners” uses a lot of archaic words like “spake” that assures us that the poem is set in medieval times. Besides the use of archaic words, the Supernatural setting of the poem and the traveller which closely resemble a knight who must have been returning from a long quest gives us the impression that the ballad is set in the medieval times.
2. No head from the leaf-fringed sill
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
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.
a) Why are the eyes of the traveller described as grey?
b) Identify two words used to give the poem an eerie atmosphere.
c) ‘voice from the world of men’. Whose voice is it? How is it significant?
d) Why was he ‘perplexed and still’?
Answer: a) The word grey is often used to describe unclarity or confusion. In the poem “The Listeners” the poet describes the eyes of the traveller as grey as we know nothing about the traveller except that he was at the door of the house to keep a promise.
b) Two words used to give the poem an eerie atmosphere are “grey” and “phantom”.
c) It is the voice of the lonely traveller. It is significant as the voice bridges two separated worlds of the living and the dead.
d) He was “perplexed and still” because he was expecting an answer from the inmates of the house but despite repeated calls, there was no response. He was there to keep a promise and therefore was certain to receive an answer.
B. Read and Write
1. In the poem ‘The Listeners’, how did the traveller feel as he repeatedly knocked on the door?
Answer: As he repeatedly knocked on the door but received no response, the traveller sensed an eerie atmosphere and came to the realisation that no one was going to answer the door. He was at the door all alone and as time passed, he grew uneasy at the deathly silence and finally decided to you leave. But before he would leave, he declared at the top of his voice: ‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, That I kept my word.’ He was there to keep a promise and he wanted anyone who could hear him that he had kept his promise.
2. What does the poet mean when he says the silence surged softly backward?
Answer: The poet means that as soon as the traveller was gone with his horse, the silence that surrounded the house and its vicinity which was disturbed by the advance of the lonely traveller, reoccupied the place and everything fell silent once again.
C. Think and Answer
1. How does the poet describe the atmosphere in the poem ‘The Listeners’?
Answer: The poet describes the atmosphere of the poem through a series of eerie elements about the whole scene. The poet also keeps many a thing unclear which only adds to the eerieness of the setting.
The poet brings together two worlds- the worlds of the living and the dead, close to each other in the poem with the advent of the lonely traveller about whom we know nothing except that he was there to keep a promise to the house at the dead of the night in the middle of the woods. The poet, however, chooses to not reveal anything more about the ghosts that inhabit the house or the traveller and his promise. All these make the poem a very compelling read.
3. What is the poem implying about the inmates of the mansion?
Answer: The poem is implying that the inmates of the house are dead and it is their spirits that now occupy the house. The dead are living comfortably without any interaction with the livings and they choose to remain like this. That is why when the traveller came to their door, they remained quiet till the traveller was gone.
Extra questions and answers
1. What message does the traveller leave because going?
Answer: Before going, the traveller leaves the message that he kept his promise and visited the place and asked to respond but no one answered.
2. Why is the knocking on the door not answered?
Answer: The knocking on the door was not answered because there was no one in the house except the phantoms.
3. Who do you think are the inmates of the house?
Answer: I think the inmates of the house are phantoms who once used to dwell in it.
4. Why had the traveller gone there?
Answer: He had gone there because he had promised someone to visit the place.
Ron’e Dutta is the Co-Founder and Editor of Online Free Notes. He is a journalist, a blogger, a creative writer, and a teacher. He is currently writing his first thriller novel on time-travelling. Read the prologue of the novel here. Connect with him on social media.