Discuss how Walter de la Mare draws on the pre-existing figure of the “traveler” in literature. What tropes and generic cues does he deploy? For what purpose does he use them?
In writing “The Listeners,” Walter de la Mare purposefully presents the “Traveller” as a representative figure, rather than a particular individual. The absence of any biographical detail, minimal physical description, and the use of a capitalized, generic noun to refer to him, all urge us to read this character as a stand-in for the concept, or idea, of a Traveller. The archaic diction used throughout the poem—such as ‘smote,’ ‘champed,’ etc.—further contribute to his sense of the Traveller as a specifically literary/mythic figure. However, de la Mare also subverts many of the conventions of “traveler” narratives. This hero’s mission doesn’t go quite as planned, and we’re given no beginning or end, just the middle, of a journey. Thus de la Mare uses these tropes to deepen the resonance of his work, even as he twists them to serve his particular poetic needs.
Identify an example of a formal poetic device—such as meter and rhyme—that de la Mare uses in “The Listeners.” Discuss how this device contributes to the effect of the poem.
The most obvious poetic device in “The Listeners” is the ABCB rhyming structure, which de la Mare uses to give the poem its overall uncanny, incantatory rhythm. The rhymes don’t carry over between quartets, which slows the poem down and prompts the reader to linger on each one. And though he didn’t choose to adhere to any one classic metrical form throughout, this doesn’t mean that his meter is chosen at random. For example, when setting the unsettling scene at the beginning of the poem, de la Mare uses the more musical, haunting, and difficult trochaic meter (in lines 2 and 4, for example). However, the rhymed lines at the end of the poem fall nearly perfectly into iambic meter—which is fluid and close to regular human speech—in order to give a feeling of fluidity, and finality, to his description of the domain of the listeners lapsing back into silence.
Why does the speaker describe the listeners’ silence as an “answer”? Is it one? And, if it is, how does that change our understanding of the poem?
The choice of a third-person omniscient speaker allows de la Mare to give the reader more than simply the perspective of either the Listeners or the Traveller. And his use of the word “answer” in line 22—“Their stillness answering his cry”—is a perfect example of an effective use of this narrative style. The Traveller notably does not receive this “stillness” as an answer, but the speaker is able to prompt the reader to try to see it as one. This opens the poem up to other readings, other questions, such as: how do we, in reading or “listening” to this poem, respond to it? What sort of “listening” does the poem ask of us? In this way de la Mare expands our sense of where meaning can lie, implying that “stillness” can say as much as action and as speech.
Most readers of “The Listeners” immediately identify the Traveller as the ‘protagonist’ of the poem, i.e., the character who the poem is ‘about.’ Present a convincing argument for the opposing viewpoint.
Despite the fact that the Listeners “do” very little, de la Mare chose to title this poem “The Listeners,” not “The Traveller.” Clearly many aspects of the poem encourage the reader to identify with the Traveller, and his search for answers mirrors our own experience of reading. The Traveller is also identified as an individual, while the Listeners form a “thronging” indistinguishable mass. Arguably, in presenting the Traveller as a kind of adventurer-hero but then denying him his victory, having him flee into the night in the face of the silence of the listeners, de la Mare means to challenge our impulse to identify with the heroic individual, “the last man left awake,” and discount the listeners.
What role does the natural (non-human) world, including the Traveller’s horse, play in “The Listeners”?
Much of the description of the natural world in de la Mare’s poem is calculated to create a sense of unease in the reader, as it clearly does for the Traveller as well. Yet notably none of the description of the other living beings besides the Traveller—the Listeners, the bird, and the Travellers horse—seem at all perturbed by the silence and isolation of the scene. The non-human world seems, in fact, quite at home in “stillness” and quiet. Fear of the unknown, of silence, of isolation, de la Mare seems to be saying, is a response peculiar to human beings. And rather than glorifying it, the poet appears to be challenging us to listen to that fear, to hear it out.