In these, the final lines of the poem, the speaker for the first time explicitly acknowledges the poem's reader, addressing us with “Ay,” stepping outside the story, in a sense, and creating a clear distance between the perspective of the speaker and the Traveller. Arguably, the speaker here adopts something more like the perspective of the Listeners: the entire quartet is about sound, but the only verbs are ascribed to the Listeners (“they heard”) and the “silence” which “surge[s]”.
In this way, the ending of the poem leads us to question whether the Traveller is, in fact, the hero and center of this narrative, or if his arrival is merely a blip, a brief disruption, in the silent world of the Listeners.
"And he felt in his heart their strangeness, Their stillness answering his cry…"
These lines are notable for how they seem to contradict the Traveller’s assertion that “I came, and no one answered” (line 27). It is also striking that the speaker never describes what happens quite that way, never says “no one answered” or something analogous. This suggests a possible reading in which what causes the Traveller to leave (as he does just after this moment) isn’t the lack of an answer, but his refusal to acknowledge the answer he’s received, his fear of the “strangeness” of the Listeners. Perhaps, we’re prompted to ask, it’s simply that what their “stillness,” or silence, has to tell him is something that he doesn’t wish to know.
"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;"
This is the first explicit element of the supernatural within the poem, and can be viewed in a number of ways. For example, the Listeners could be spirits of a sort, haunting the house but unable or unwilling to answer the call of the living Traveller. The "phantoms" stand listening and aware of the Traveller, who perhaps isn’t prepared for this encounter with beings from the beyond.
Another interpretation is that the listeners are inside the mind of the Traveller. This sees them as a projection of the Traveller’s need for someone to be there, to hear him. A house is a symbol of community and safety, but here it is abandoned, dark, and haunted, removed from society and "the world of men” to which the Traveller belongs.
"And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,"
Only the speaker seems to be affected by this strangeness, as the nature around the house remains calm. His horse, an animal usually used to represent unease within stories, stands in wait as he eats the grass, whereas a bird is disturbed overhead by the Traveller's call—not by the phantoms.
Some readings of the poem suggest that those in the house have died, leaving only their phantoms and memories behind, which is why the Traveller senses that something is wrong and seeks to leave the place as soon as possible.
"'Tell them I came, and no-one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said."
Once again the reader is called to question the Traveller's motives. We still do not know why he is there, but this line implies that he has come to complete some task and either he has failed, arriving to late, or those who told him to come have failed him.
Another interpretation says that the Traveller himself is dead, trying desperately to call back to the land of the living and complete something he was unable to complete in life, leaving him in a state of limbo.
The Listeners Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Listeners is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.