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The Listeners: Poem Meaning & Analysis

The Listeners: Poem Meaning & Analysis
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  • 0:03 A Great Poem
  • 0:41 Setting & Tone
  • 1:09 Characters
  • 2:19 Themes
  • 3:15 Meaning
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will examine the 1912 poem by Walter de La Mare, 'The Listeners.' We'll analyze the features of this poem, including its setting, tone, characters and theme, and explore its possible meaning.

A Great Poem

Walter de La Mare's famous poem, 'The Listeners,' immediately grabs the reader with its sense of atmosphere.

It's a moonlit night, deep in a forest. A Traveller knocks insistently on the door of a 'lone house.' Although there is no response, inside a 'host of phantom listeners' hear the Traveller's call. Spooked by the silence, the man knocks even louder. He calls out a message to the mysterious listeners.

Then the Traveller grabs his horse and hightails it out of the whole spooky situation. Let's take a closer look at what makes this poem so effective.

Setting & Tone

Though we don't know for sure when the poem takes place, it's obviously not in the modern day. The Traveller's mode of transport is a horse, not a car.

The poem is physically set in a moonlit wood at nighttime, which helps set the eerie tone of the poem. The house in the middle of the forest is no less creepy, described as 'lone,' 'empty,' 'shadowy,' and 'still.' Throughout the poem, the reader experiences an unnerving chill right along with the Traveller.

Characters

The characters in the poem start out normal but get progressively more mysterious. There's a Traveller, who's just a typical man. And maybe you could consider the horse a character as well. The other characters in the poem are decidedly less concrete.

The listeners are an ill-defined group that listen but don't respond to the Traveller's call. Are they ghosts? Words like 'phantom' seem to indicate so. The listeners hear 'that voice from the world of men,' which seems to imply that they are of a different world.

The imagery of the listeners 'thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair/ That goes down to the empty hall' brings to mind a haunted house filled with spirits.

Finally, and most enigmatically, are the characters referred to as 'them.' The Traveller calls out to the listeners: 'Tell them I came, and no one answered/That I kept my word.' Now we really have a mystery! Who are the 'them,' exactly? Why had the Traveller promised to come to them? And why aren't they there now? Even if we are pretty sure the listeners are ghosts, it's anybody's guess as to who the 'them' refers to.

Themes

Our Traveller is alone, horse notwithstanding. His alienation is emphasized by the fact that he is called 'lonely.' When he calls out, and knows the listeners hear him but don't respond, he feels 'in his heart their strangeness.' They are not the same as him, on seemingly any level.

Whatever these listeners are, they're unreachable. The Traveller can't connect. His quest is ultimately futile and he leaves the house as he was when he found it: alone.

Another theme involves the experience of mystery in our lives. Like the Traveller in the poem, we're full of questions that don't have answers. Life's big questions ('Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Is there an afterlife?') have been debated for centuries, with no satisfying resolutions. The poem seems to address the frustration of not knowing and the impulse to seek answers in spite of it.

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