It’s no accident that one of the earliest and most enduring works of Western literature, The Odyssey, is a tale of a traveler and his journey. A journey, after all, no matter how roundabout, naturally possesses the basic features of a narrative: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Walter de la Mare was well-versed in classical mythology such as The Odyssey, and there’s little doubt that he had Odysseus and his tale in mind when he chose to call his poem’s central figure “the Traveller.” For, as critics Maarten De Pourcq and Sophie Levie write in their book European Literary History: An Introduction, “Odysseus, the traveler par excellence, sets the frame of reference for all future literary travelers.”
And if Odysseus is the archetypical example of one sort of traveler narrative, in which the hero passes through a series of trials before, ultimately, returning home, then the 14th-century narrative poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri represents a different model. Dante’s poet-traveler begins with a tour through hell in the Inferno before passing through purgatory and ultimately ending in up in paradise. Through his journey, the traveler becomes worthy of his destination. Or, as the critic Wallace Fowlie puts it in his essay “Faith and Narrative in Dante,” “Dante's narrative is a voyage to God that goes first through the world.”
And whether this is conscious allusion or not, reading Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” it’s difficult not to recall the famous opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In the middle of our life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood,” a reading encouraged by the fact that de la Mare was a fervent admirer of Dante’s. (Some translations of that line read “I awoke in a dark wood” which calls to mind de la Mare’s “last man left awake.”) Just as conspicuous is de la Mare’s choice to make gray eyes the one physical feature he gives his Traveller, as “grey-eyed Athena” is the patron goddess of Odysseus, and grey eyes thus often symbolize wisdom in classical mythology.
Yet something has gone awry in this particular Traveller’s narrative. The mention of the Traveller’s archetypically wise grey eyes is immediately followed by a line describing him as “perplexed and still” (not exactly the image of a wise traveler). His attempted conversation with the “phantom Listeners,” which echoes the conversations with the dead in both the Odyssey and the Inferno, fails to provide any answers that he can bear back with him to the land of the living.
Certainly, de la Mare’s poem implies that, as De Pourcq and Levie remark about Odysseus, “For the eternal traveler the prospect of another journey never loses its allure,” meaning that, in a sense, by returning to his journey, the Traveller is in fact returning home. Yet rather than literal travel, the journey depicted in “The Listeners” appears to be something like the Traveller’s alternating pursuit of, then subsequent flight from, some knowledge or mystery within himself. de la Mare scholar Henry Charles Duffing described “The Listeners” as a poem in which “man is shown ‘haunted’ by his mortality, an ‘inward presence’ which, 'unmoved, remote,' slumbers not, and ‘frets out each secret from his breast.’” (the quotations in this passage are from elsewhere in de la Mare’s work).
Taken in light of the long tradition that precedes it, we can come to see “The Listeners” as an inventive reframing of the “traveler narrative.” It is, one could argue, a journey in which what the “Traveller” seeks, what he is fleeing from, and the terrain he must traverse all reside within his own mind.