“The Listeners” – Walter de la Mare

This is Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners,” which is a fascinating poem. Listen to it a few times. Get a feel for it.

I consider this poem a perfect way to explain poetry to people who have been taught poetry poorly. What does this poem mean? God knows, not me. Probably not much. Or maybe it’s hugely meaningful, and if I understood it, it would change my life. Who knows. It really doesn’t matter.

The first, foremost, the single overriding and most important thing in poetry is that IT SOUNDS GOOD. Everything else is secondary to that. Every single thing you’ve ever learned about poetry, all the little iambs and meters, all the metaphor and onomatopoeia, I swear it, every single thing, is a tool to make language sound good. Want to know the difference between poetry and prose? Poetry pulls all the stops to sound good, and sometimes makes sense, prose communicates, and sometimes sounds nice too.

“The Listeners” sounds good. De la Mare was extremely careful to craft the rhythm of the lines (but don’t try to scan them, they’re accentual, probably composed by ear, and infamous for being a constant source of controversy among people who care about that). The rhymes, and rhyme is hard to pull off well, are easy and natural, they almost feel accidental.

“The Listeners” makes pictures and builds an atmosphere, an air of mystery in this little scene. Is it a ghost story? Who was the traveler coming to see? Is anyone actually listening?

I don’t want to tear into the poem too much, but part of the atmosphere is from the constant drawing the ear back to sonorous, single-syllable words like “moon” and “door” and “stone” (It’s those back vowels). Also, he uses words that have a lot of in-built meaning, suggestive words like “listeners” and “phantom” without giving enough information to cement their meaning, leaving us wondering. That sense of mystery derived from two or three vague words carries its “feel” to the rest of the poem.

My two favorite lines, by the reading above, anyway, are “Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house / From the one man left awake,” because the first is slightly longer than the poem conditions you to expect, and yet the second snaps you right back into the three-beat norm. Placet mihi.