While nearly every reader will encounter the atmosphere of “The Listeners” as frightening or even threatening, the reality is that nothing takes place which is in fact frightening or threatening. The poet doesn’t impose any particular moral judgment on the events described in the poem; if any is found there, it was brought there by the reader. In this way, de la Mare challenges us to come to terms with the mystery, the silence, and the inexplicable that exists all around us. “The Listeners” is asking us to listen to the world, suggesting that even the silence has something to tell us.
The Quest for Understanding
The paradox at the center of “The Listeners” is that even as its power derives from its deliberate ambiguity, one could equally argue that its underlying theme is about the importance of searching for meaning and understanding. This theme is realized less in the actual text of the poem than in the response of most readers. We’re driven to ask a long series of questions, such as: why do the Listeners remain silent and still rather than answer the knocking of the door? Why is that the only creatures that ever move are outside the home? Who are the “they” to whom the Traveller gave “his word,” and what’s their agenda, anyway? Most readers will set out upon a quest to understand the meaning of the mysteries of the story, and if Walter de la Mare didn’t want—or at least expect—that reaction, he would have written a radically different poem.
The opening words of “The Listeners” encapsulate this theme: “Is there anybody there?” It is a universal question everyone has or will ask at some point in their life, and it is quite a pressing question for poets in particular. Is anyone going to read this? Will anyone care? The fact that the poem commences with this multi-layered, existential inquiry has given rise to interpretations of it being about the question of whether God exists, and if He does, does He care about us. The theme need not be quite so cosmic; the question asked by the Traveller appeals to the quite-common human worry about whether anyone else is really paying attention to us.
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.