“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.

The Song of Earendil

If J.R.R. Tolkien were alive today (that most unfortunate condition!), he would be celebrating his 125th birthday. Or twelvety-fifth, I suppose.

Here is the Tolkien Ensemble’s setting of “Earendil was a Mariner,” which Bilbo sings in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The poem has an absolutely fascinating history, more so than any other Tolkien wrote.

When Tolkien was an undergraduate student at Oxford, he was a member of the original Inklings. Later, he and C.S. Lewis would be core members of another group with the same name, but this was a literature club for students. He began writing around this time a poem called “Errantry,” which is a nonsense verse, and an excuse for metrical hi-jinks. It was written in a very difficult form that Tolkien invented himself, and has loads of three-syllable assonances and near-rhymes. He never wrote another piece in the same style, it was too much trouble.

Several members of the Inklings memorized the poem, which was intended to be recited as fast as possible, with the goal of annoying everyone in hearing range. And it is a very fun poem to recite.

Over the years, Tolkien made minor changes to “Errantry,” but never worked on it for very long. While he was writing “The Lord of the Rings,” he took the poem and began revising it. If you’re a poem, you should be very afraid when your poet gets into his head to revise.

Like everything Tolkien touched, “Errantry” eventually became a part of Middle-Earth, as the “Song of Earendil.” Compare the two poems’ first lines:


There was a merry passenger
A messanger, a mariner
He built a gilded gondola
To wander in and had in her…


The Song of Earendil

Earendil was a mariner
Who tarried in Arvernien
He built a boat of timber felled
In Nimbrethel to journey in…

The only line of the original “Errantry” to survive is in stanza two, describing Earendil’s armaments, “His scabbard of chalcedony.” Quite a bit of the vocabulary is similar though.

Later in his life, a woman from Washington D.C. wrote a letter to Tolkien, asking him about “Errantry,” which at the time was not published. A friend of her’s had memorized it, and wrote it down for her, with the vague idea that it was connected to an Oxford professor.

If the poem was not yet published, how did that friend know it? If you’ll recall, members of the Inklings had memorized it, at this point some thirty years before. From them, it traveled via oral transmission all the way to the Americas, and probably beyond. Nothing, I think, could be more pleasing to a poet than his writing to become folklore. Tolkien was ecstatic, and the original “Errantry” was later published in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.”

If “Errantry” was intended to be a patter song, sung as fast as humanly possible, is the same thing true of “The Song of Earendil?” I like to think so, because it makes the scene in Rivendel so much more interesting:

  • After Bilbo finishes his recital, he asks the elves to try to guess which lines were his, and which were Aragorn’s. They can’t tell the difference, make a slightly pompous excuse, and ask him to sing it again. Besides the fact that all of the lines were Bilbo’s, it could be that the elves needed another try because the first recital was too fast for them to catch most of the lines.
  • Bilbo is very happy with his performance after he is finished, but unwilling to repeat it. If he sang the song very fast, he might be proud that he got it right the first time, but too exhausted for another performance.
  • The prospect of singing about Earendil, Elrond’s father, in Elrond’s own house is daring, and Aragorn warns Bilbo beforehand. But nobody’s feelings are hurt. This might be because the song was so fast that nobody could tell if it was disrespectful. That would be a very Bilbo thing to do, kind of like his stunt in the first chapter.

Anyway, Tolkien seemed to think that “Errantry / The Song of Earendil” was his best poem. Granted, he wasn’t an amazing poet, but “Earendil was a Mariner” is very fun to recite, and who can say “no” to a poem with such an interesting background?

P.S. “Errantry” very hard to find online, but you can hear it here.

P.P.S. This poor fellow sings “The Song of Earendil” at a good clip. I like to think Bilbo was maybe a tad bit slower.

P.P.P.S. If you like, you could sing either version of the poem to the tune of “I am the Very Model of the Modern Major General.”

The Sound of Greek Poetry

This is a recitation of Book Six of the Iliad in the original language, beginning at line 237.

Ancient Greek and Latin poetry was based on vowel quantity, which is the literal length of time it takes to pronounce a syllable. This is hard for English speakers to pick up on- we’re used to stress, not length, being relevant, as in the difference between “content” and content,” and the sentences “I didn’t take the money” and “I didn’t take the money.” 

English does have vowel length, though. You can hear it in the difference between the “i” in “big” and the same sound in “little.” We spend a little more time on the first “i” than the second. That’s vowel quantity, and even though we hardly hear it, it’s more obvious in Greek and Latin.

Poetry based on quantity sounds slightly different from English poetry. Because there are two vowel lengths, it sound like a piece of music with two notes. That doesn’t really do it justice, does it? Anyway, the basic line of Classical verse (almost) always ends the same way, with a dactyl (long-short-short) followed by a spondee (long-long), which sounds like “dum diddy dum dum,” or, in a Latin classroom, “shave and a haircut.”

The result is that lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey end with a kind of tonal rhyme. You get that “shave and a haircut” sound at the end of every one. You can hear it in the video, if you listen well.