Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Listeners - What Does It Mean?

The photo above may be tricky to read properly, but it's worth trying. It's the first few lines of my favourite poem, "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare, and I spotted it on the side of a building in Guildford whilst sitting in traffic. Rain and vehicles made grabbing a snapshot difficult, and I did what I could, surprised and elated to find that the words I had always found so evocative should show up in that place at that time.

"The Listeners" is a strange poem. It could mean many things, it might mean nothing, and perhaps de la Mare was simply telling a story with no subtext whatsoever. For me, there are layers to "The Listeners". The first is that it's a story - a strange and ghostly one - about a man (The Traveller) who is looking for someone or something, and thinks he has found it behind a "moonlit door" in the forest (see where my blog's name comes from?). But there is no one (or nothing) there. His knock is not answered. He leaves, alone.

The second part of the story is the part that intrigues me, though. Who is the Traveller? Why is he there? Does he even know, or is this a dream? Who (or what) is he looking for, and what will he do now that he has journeyed to the place he was told (or was he?) to go to, only to find he is too late? Too late for what? Is this the end of the world? Has he been forgotten during The Rapture?

Each question opens up more, and none of them have answers.

That's what I love this poem.

The Listeners

‘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.

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