Standing as Walter de la Mare’s most anthologized poem, “The Listeners” serves as powerful reminder to creative artists that very often—perhaps even usually—less is more. Published in 1912 when Victorian restraint was still the convention of horror and suspense and composed of just 36 lines and featuring only one named character, “The Listeners” is a lesson in the economy of establishing a disquieting mood as it describes a very specific encounter in concrete imagery that reaches a definite conclusion while still managing to leave the meaning of its tale ambiguous enough to allow for a variety of subjective interpretation. As if that weren’t instruction in the art of poetry composition to cover two or three classes, de la Mare drives home a point far too often lost on writers of all stripes: sometimes the story is made all the more powerful by beginning in the middle and leaving the backstory for readers to fill in with their own imagination.
The poet even manages to show off his technical skills with that beginning in the middle of the story approach through precise exploitation of meter and rhythm so that the opening words replicate the sound of the Traveller knocking on the door. Within that showy display he also executes a subtle demonstration of his affinity for experimental verse by varying the number of syllables just enough so that what at first seems like simple use of trochaic meter is actually revealed to be a more complex orchestration by a conductor invisibly using his baton to force his desired effects upon an active recitation of “The Listeners.” To see how he manages this, read the poem silently at first and then try reading it out loud at the same pace. The purpose behind the variations in syllables per line will quickly become apparent.
As for that elusive meaning of the poem, among the theories proposed since its publication include establishing the Traveller as everything from a ghost of a dead man to God and the listeners as everything from guardians of the afterlife to mere humans frightened of the mysterious nighttime visitor. The genius of the poem, of course, is that everything is possible and nothing can be right or wrong.