What Happened to The Listeners in Walter De La Mare’s Poem?

A question asked by countless people who follow and love English literature is what had actually happened to the Listeners in Walter de la Mare’s poem by the same name? There has been a huge debate on this. Here are my thoughts and a story on this subject.

I don’t know if you have read the poem “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare. Hence I would like you to read it first. Even those who have read the poem may want to read it once more. Poems like these are worth reading a hundred times. This poem is central to this article.

Walter de la Mare in 1924

‘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 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.

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 the sound of iron on stone,

And how the silence surged softly backward,

When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Isn’t it beautiful and mysterious? Doesn’t it send shivers down the spine when you imagine yourself as the Traveller in front of an ancient door at the death of night in the middle of a forest? This is one of my most favorite poems and I read it when I was in high school. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of literature which has so mystically described what we call “an encounter between the world of the living and the dead.”

I was deeply moved by the poem and often thought about the Listeners in that house and wondered what had happened to them. Me and my friends often discussed that the dwellers of the house must have died a terrible death, that their unfulfilled desires were not allowing them to go away which is why they still lingered in that deserted house.

I read somewhere that Walter de la Mare had written to one of his friends that contrary to the general perception that the dwellers of that house had died and hence were not responding to the Traveller’s call, it was actually the Traveller who was the Ghost; that he was dead and this was why the people who lived in that house were not able to hear his call.   

One of my juniors at school was so very much influenced by the poem that the day the poem was taught in his class, he could think of nothing else after he returned from school. He had a dream that night and he remembered the vivid details of the dream and shared it with me and some of our friends. He dreamt that after the Traveller the house and went away his mind became so peaceless by the thought of the dwellers of that house that he returned to that house the next morning to see what evil fate had befallen them. His heart told him that something was wrong. He returned to that house the next day and broke into the house only to find that all the people in the house had died of Plague, most probably a few days ago. The Traveller then dug a mass grave and buried all the bodies in the backyard of the house. He made a cross and put it in front of the grave and returned.

This friend of mine was a romantic and kind of a Bohemian. He was a very good painter. He woke up in the morning and painted a beautiful picture which showed a man wearing a grey coat, a black hat was standing in front of a freshly dug grave with a shovel in his hand. There was also a cross beside the grave. I still remember the picture and would love to see it again. I shall try to get in touch with him and see if he has a copy available which he can share. I shall post the picture if I can get hold of it. 

The debate goes on about the fate of the Traveller and the Listeners and I still wonder about the poem. The Listeners is an all time favorite of mine and I love to read it time and again to get that spooky feeling of that cursed night. 

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29 Comments
  1. Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Really an enchanting poem and equally enchanting review that brought to life the scene.

  2. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    This has always been one of my favorite poems. I have loved it since my school days.

    I always pictured the listeners as people who were in hiding, and the traveler was suppose to find them a safe passage out of their situation.

    He promised before leaving his comrades that he would do so and return. But his return came too late, they were discovered and all killed

    He knew by the silence in the house that they were all lost and he cried out about his keeping his promise because he knew he had failed them.

  3. Posted September 23, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I have never read this poem before but I now understand the feelings it leaves with the reader. I too felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise. This is an excellent review. Really well done.

    Christine

  4. Posted September 29, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I just read this poem today for the first time in a book of poetry, and came online to find out what other people thought of it and how they interpreted it. That’s really cool about De Le Mare saying the traveler was the ghost. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Posted November 1, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Terrific poem. I first read it in std. 8. My English teacher gave a very good explanation of the poem but it didn’t satisfied me. I went to my teacher and asked he r again and again. I also told her my views about the poem. After reading that poem I was not willing to read another poem. Now also when I read I feel my hairs rising. Thanks to Walter De La Mare.

  6. Emad- Iraq
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    When I read the poem in 1995, I decide to make it a major reading in my anual teaching programme. I taught it to my students for I found it very closely related to our Islamic belief that the dead hear us but we do not. We believe that theree is always a spiritual communion between these two worlds of the dead and the living. De la Mare is confirming such a communion though some people may want to be unaware. The poem is one of the best poems I ever read in my life.

  7. Chris
    Posted December 27, 2009 at 11:12 am

    My favourite poem. So evocative- the overwhlming sense of a shattered stillness that rolls back like a wave once the Traveller leaves, the sense of an`ancient house with memories in the middle of a dark, ancient forest. This poem really takes you to the place it is creating in your imagination.

  8. Mkhan
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 4:00 am

    its an intresting poem but still i m confuse whethr the travelr is a ghost or the creatures in the house.But it is already clear that walter de la mare want to tell us that the soul and life are interconnected

  9. Jonathan
    Posted January 31, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Regarding the debate about whether ‘The Traveller’ had died and ‘The Listeners’ couldn’t hear his call as you said in the essay, there are a few references suggesting that ‘the listeners’ did hear ‘the traveller’, ‘Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight’ and ‘Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,’. Also a couple of times ‘the traveller’ is referred to as being a living man ‘To that voice from the world of men:’ and ‘From the one man left awake:’

    The attractiveness of this poem is not knowing who the characters are or what their situation is. When something is disputable, people will dispute it.

  10. Posted February 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    very rightly said, Jonathan.
    the topic is disputable and there lies its beauty

  11. Posted February 5, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    \”i don\’t know who are you? but i think that you are a type of person like me. Its interesting to note that you speak in the same way like me and I\’m too enchanted by the awful mysterious secrets\”

  12. ASHLEIGH
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    I am 13 and i have just been reading this poem and we have to write a begining to the poem and a end for exmaple the story around it i love the poem and thank you for the infomation and the different views it has really given me a good idea of what i can write.

  13. Sam
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I recently wrote a essay on this very poem. My English teacher helped me and my class to really investigate this poem and try to deduct as much information from it as possible. When I first encountered it I thought it was terribly confusing! But I grew to love its subtleness and endeavouring to make sense of it all! I did reach a personal conclusion; the traveller is supposed to be the reader, or at least the reader’s soul, and has travelled to find something. This COULD be a physical object, but I think it is something deeper(emotional or mental, namely), such as a value or charactristic.
    But anyway, a great poem! By Sam, aged 12.

  14. Collin W
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I think the actual storyline of the poem is secondary to meaning. The poem takes place in a peaceful, overgrown forest with a seemingly dilapidated house/castle that we assume was once home to a family or group of people but is now being overtaken by the forest (leaf-fringed sills, the bird in the turret). I see the house and the forest as a symbol for the forces of nature in the world. The Traveller is of “the world of men”, therefore I see him as a representative of mankind. To me the poem represents the constant miscommunication and inability to coexist between man and nature. The Traveller lives in a world that will live on long after he is gone, a world that does not share his impatience nor his struggle to be heard or understood. Nature views man as a disturber of the peace, a member of the world that forces his desires and will upon all things around him no matter what damage he causes. Instead of answering his knocking demands, the Listeners just wait for him to leave so that the peaceful silence of the forest can return. As the man-made iron horseshoes clip-clop on the naturally stony path, man fades away and allows the forest to return to its desired sublimity.

  15. Unknown Boy
    Posted March 14, 2010 at 10:17 am

    This is the best poem I have read, because this is the first poem I HAVE read.

  16. Elizabeth Hull
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 9:35 am

    I was given this in a book of poetry recently, having not read it for over 30 years, and was struck how different an adult perspective is. It seems a much darker poem than I ever realised. One interpretation, (as with all good poetry, there is no one correct interpretation), is that the Traveller is the promised second coming of Christ, and that man does not listen or respond to his call. I have no religious axe to grind here (being atheistic!), but it certainly admits of that meaning.
    Whatever you take from it, it seems intensely sad.

  17. Posted April 3, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    @Eliza!!!!! I had never known about this perspective! This really adds an altogether different dimension to the discussion. Thank You!

  18. John of the burbs
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 3:44 am

    I read recently that De La Mare said something about it being a poem into which it was possible to read too many meanings. My poetry teacher had some garbled story about Glencoe that he said it referred to. But 33 years and a reasonable bit of life experience later, it has far less literal potential and far more feeling to it. The feeling of that in spite of your best efforts, you have not been able to do for someone what you hoped/promised to do. Having said “I will come back”, for some reason it doesn’t happen. To say to a dying loved one “You will get better”, and to know that you can’t bring that statement to truth. And also the coldness with which a failed promise may bring: that the dead cannot, do not forgive.

    John of the burbs

  19. Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:59 am

    I LOVE this poem (and everything else by de la Mare) But you should read the sequel; The Speakers! Find it at http://rowanluis.blogspot.com/2010/08/speakers-rowan-de-la-mare.html

    It made me chortle!

  20. Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:43 am

    @Elisa – read it! liked it! pretty good poem

  21. Abhra Sen
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    The conception that the traveller himself might be the ghost is a new thing to me. It is one of my favourite poem and thanks to SVK for giving this information.

  22. Rosalie Schultz
    Posted October 3, 2010 at 8:06 am

    A lovely heart-rending poem. I was just recently reminded of it. I had an elderly friend whom I thought I should check on this last summer during Chicago’s heat wave. But I procrastinated. When I finally did go to his house in the middle of the night (we were both inveterate night owls, used to getting together in the wee hours) – I first knock-knocked on his back door, as always. No answer. I knocked on the side windows. No answer. Then I came around front, and found that door had been sealed by the Coroner’s Office.

    I later learned my friend’s body had been discovered and removed to the County Morgue a few days earlier. Walter de la Mare’s poem came wrenchingly to mind – and also the title of one of Ivan Albright’s paintings – “That Which I Should Have Done.”

  23. Louisa
    Posted November 11, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    I have always loved this poem since when my mother first read it to me. By the age of 5 I could recite it by heart. Together, we believed that the Traveller was a soldier bringing a message from a dead close commrade to his family back home having made a promise to do so, only to find no one there, but their spirits. The discussion above, however, has given me a far deeper insight. The idea of the Traveller being the ghost is interesting and clever, but I agree with Johnathan (January 31st) that there is so much that implies the opposite. The religious connotation is a fantastic idea! I had never thought about that before, but it makes sense. I love the fact that no one knows for certain what happened. I think it adds to the charm and mystery surrounding the poem. Thank you for giving me an even better understanding of my favourite poem.

  24. Posted December 20, 2010 at 10:31 am

    a really great poem i have to answer questions on it for my homework the questions are really hard please help me

  25. Posted January 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I am doing an Essay for william de la mare this peice of info is quite useless but it is nice you shared you OWN opinian!!

  26. sophia jilani
    Posted February 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I really like this poem because of its mystery.suggestiveness and blending of naturalism and super-naturalism To me the traveller is just an ordinary person who comes back after a long period and finds the inhabitants living phantoms i.e.dead within.

  27. Kara
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    I have to do an essay about this poem,,,really boring…ugh!!!!!

  28. betafett
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Very interesting! My creative writing class were given this poem to read, then encouraged to write a short story about it, and my first instinct was also that the traveller was the dead one (Wilfully ignoring the line ‘to that voice from the world of men’) In my story the traveller is a dispatch rider carrying a pardon to the castle where seven innocent people have been condemned to hang as witches. The Traveller awakes in the forest and has a spooky encounter with a haunting white dove (which will later be the bird that flies from the turret), before meeting death itself at a ford that crosses into a local Thane’s land. Here Death tells the traveller that the seven innocents are already dead, and that he is doomed to repeat the cycle for all eternity unless he accepts his failure, but the traveller, in despair, denies death once more and travels to the castle, and encounter. I’m reading it to my writer’s group at our halloween class. :)

  29. William Jenkins
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 6:51 am

    I always thought the peom is about a group of knights who meet up in the house the night before they go on Crusade.
    They all promise to return and get to gether again afterwards.
    Only one survives and he is the traveller in the poem.
    The ghosts are the others who did not survive.
    I don’t really get all these other theories!!!
    Cheers
    Bill Jenkins
    Worcester.

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