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.