A man identified only as "the Traveller" knocks on the door of a house at night, calling out to see if anybody is home. As his horse waits, he calls out a second time, again receiving no response, but suddenly feeling the "strangeness" of "the listeners," unidentified "phantoms" who inhabit the house, he knocks a third time, saying, "Tell them I came, and no one answered, / That I kept my word." Then he leaves the house on his horse, as the listeners hear the fading sound of his horse's hooves.
The ambiguous, haunting feeling of “The Listeners” is immediately obvious to anyone who reads the poem. The question, then, in analyzing it, is how and why Walter de la Mare wrote his poem in such a way as to evoke those feelings in his reader.
To begin, we can note that rather than narrating the Traveller’s journey to the home of the listeners, or describing its significance, de la Mare chooses to start in media res, that is, the “middle” of the narrative. We’re confronted with the Traveller’s question—“Is there anybody there?”—before we know where or who he is, why he’s there, or to whom the question is addressed. More than a simple trick to create an air of mystery, this choice causes the Traveller’s question to confront the reader more directly and creates a more powerful emotional resonance; it feels almost like you’re expected to respond.
Though the first and third lines of each quartet—which are un-rhymed—don’t hold to a particular meter or even number of syllables, at the beginning of the poem the two rhymed lines tend to be composed of seven syllables, often three trochees, a metrical unit in which a stressed (or “long”) syllable is followed by an unstressed (or “short”) one, and ending with a lone stressed syllable. The second and third lines of the poem, for example, fall precisely into this pattern: “Knock-ing on the moon-lit door” and “Of the for-est’s fern-y floor” (stressed syllables are bolded).
A trochee is the inverse of an “iamb,” in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. Perhaps the most famous usage of the iamb is in the iambic pentameter (lines organized around the rhythm of five iambs) of Shakespeare’s “blank verse.” The iamb is considered to be the meter that most closely mirrors the rhythm of normal speech. In contrast, the trochaic meter used in "The Listeners" draws attention to itself; it has a lilting, almost musical feel that de la Mare employs to help create the eerie, haunting tone of his poem and emphasize his other poetic devices, such as the heavy assonance and alliteration in “Of the forest’s ferny floor”. (For another example of this usage of the trochee, see Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.”)
At the beginning of the poem, the rhyming lines tend to describe the elements of the scene around the Traveller, while the more flowing unrhymed lines are used for narration, depicting the actions of the Traveller or the other living beings in the poem. In this way, de la Mare uses poetic devices to help the reader to feel the isolation of the traveler, and the eerie, imposing nature of his silent surroundings.
“The Listeners” also, in both substance and style, alludes to and invokes the genres of myth, parable, and/or allegory. The capitalized, abstract designations for the characters in the poem are a common convention of allegorical tales, as is its setting: a forest, but notably not any particular forest. Furthermore, the only detail given about the Traveller’s appearance, his “grey eyes” (line 11) is likely an allusion to the Greek goddess Athena, one of whose most frequently-noted features are her grey eyes, and who is also the patron god of Odysseus, perhaps the most famous traveler in Western literature (for more on this, see the section “The Figure of the “Traveler” in Literature”).
Thus, in “The Listeners” we have a hero whose mission is unknown, a journey whose beginning and end are a mystery, organized around a climax (his arrival at the house of the Listeners) that fails to occur. The poem can be read many ways: as a drama of the modern individual confronting the anonymous “thronging” collective; as a commentary on the futility of action in opposition to fate (the Traveller is just as incapable of bringing an end to his mission, his searching, as the Listeners are of answering him; their fates are given in their names); or as about the fundamental isolation of the human condition, the “strangeness” of others. Walter de la Mare’s poem is compelling and unsettling precisely because it keeps the reader “travelling,” so to speak, in search of an answer that never arrives.