The Listeners

The Listeners Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Bird (Symbol)

The bird is a symbol of the peace of the forest that is disrupted by the events in the poem. Not only does the Traveller appear to disturb its rest, sending it flying away, but the speaker appears to disturb its home and bring the forest and the listeners into the minds of the people "left awake."

The Horse (Symbol)

Unlike the bird, the horse is a symbol of life, finding its home in the land of the living. It is the method the Traveller uses to arrive at and escape from the house, disturbing the eerie forest multiple times throughout the forest as though it does not at all feel the fear that his human master does.

The Listeners (allegory)

That the poem is named for the listeners immediately prompts the reader to see their part in the narrative as an allegorical representative of some larger meaning. It also implies that how we “read” the listeners in the poem has a bearing on how we read the poem “The Listeners.” But, like the poem itself, the listeners cannot be pinned down to any particular meaning. Most strikingly, they are mute, as, in a sense, is the poem in front of us—it cannot (or simply refuses to) give us a clear answer, either confirm or deny our reading of it. It is as though what they serve best as is an allegory of our complicated relationship to de la Mare’s poem, perhaps to poetry: its “muteness,” its silence, is precisely what allows us to “hear” our own reading of it, our own thoughts. In an apparent paradox, both the reader and the poem are “listeners.”

Silence (motif)

Silence, and its synonyms, is a recurrent motif that continually acquires new meanings throughout “The Listeners.” The word itself first appears in the third line, and de la Mare carefully builds a network of associations around the motif, such that silence, even when not named, seems to emanate from everything depicted in the poem. First, it’s the horse in silence “champ[ing] the grasses,” and next “the quiet of the moonlight.” From then on, references to the grass, the forest, and the moon all ring with an echo, as it were, of silence. At the same time, de la Mare is also moderating each reference to silence by placing it in subordinate and adverbial clauses. Thus when silence appears as the subject of the phrase “and how the silence surged softly backwards” at the end of the poem, the reader feels its full force.

The Traveller’s Knocking (motif)

The recurrent knocking of the Traveller is the only clear disruption of the silence that otherwise dominates. As the poem goes on, de la Mare uses this motif to convey the increasing discomfort of the Traveller faced with the listeners' indifferent silence. At first, he’s “knocking,” then next we get the more forceful “smote,” and finally he “suddenly smote.” Moreover, the word “knock” implies the expectation of a response, while to smite can simply mean to hit. And “suddenly smote” implies an outburst of some kind—fear, or perhaps anger; it’s ambiguous. Thus through what at first appears to be repetition, de la Mare subtly conveys the shifting mood of the Traveller.