View Full Version : The Listeners

01-01-2016, 01:32 AM
The Listeners

Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
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:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

HAPPY NEW YEAR | Blwyddyn newydd dda

01-01-2016, 07:32 AM
Just answering the knock.

A happy New Year to you, Kie, and to all the denizens of the poetry forum, including the phantom lurkers.

01-01-2016, 09:18 PM
One of my favorite poems Kie. Some say they have it figured out. I don't buy it. The mystery is still there for me. If De La Mare wanted it transparent he would have written it that way.

Happy New Year

01-01-2016, 09:47 PM
Perhaps I do not read it the way de la Mare intended, but I do know what the poem evokes in me. (heh, trigger warning -- it's gloomy, and perhaps not the way you want to start your new year)

To me, the traveler represents each of us journeying through life alone, calling out futilely for someone to hear and answer -- our essential estrangement, isolation, and confusion.

The title focuses the reader not on the traveler, but on the listeners -- the phantoms who do not answer, and also, I think, the horse and the bird who seem indifferent to the traveler's calls and knocking. My take on that is that the phantoms represent the human social world, and the horse and bird represent nature, both of which are indifferent to the traveler passing through and trying to connect. The traveler, then, is essentially a transient, unimportant feature in an indifferent world that was there before he came, and will continue after he rides away alone.

01-01-2016, 11:11 PM
Nice post Cass. I wonder if anyone else wants to drop off an interpretation. I know what it says to me...

01-02-2016, 02:01 AM
Happy New Year, Kie and all.

I always get the feeling from this that all we can do is show up, be present and not worry about acknowledgement. The lack of direct response does not mean the trip was worthless, we'll never know.

Peace and a bit of joy to all.

01-02-2016, 03:18 AM
Well, I agree that the traveler is looking for (and not getting) acknowledgement. But for me, the tone of the poem is too lonely and haunting for the message to be that one shouldn't worry about that, or that it might all have been worthwhile after all. There isn't a jot of hope or happiness in it -- he's "perplexed" and "lonely", feels the "strangeness", there are "phantoms."

Then, too -- the title, which puts the emphasis not on the traveler, the fact that he "kept his word", and his desire for acknowledgment, but rather on the listeners, phantom or otherwise, who ignore his call.

01-02-2016, 03:28 AM
For me the views aren't conflicting. There's no direct communication between the living and the dead. It can make one lonely, but he doesn't force his way in, be makes an attempt to fulfill his duty and moves on. It can mean no hope, or not now.

I'll think about it again.

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.

I love that part.

01-02-2016, 03:57 AM
He does more than attempt to fulfill his duty -- he in fact has done so (he has "kept his word"). Trouble is, no one acknowledges it or gives a damn. The phantoms listen but don't answer or look out the window. The bird flies away. The horse nibbles the grass.

He doesn't break in, but he does pound repeatedly and cry louder -- he doesn't just shrug and ride away.

Then there's this -- "And he felt in his heart their strangeness,/Their stillness answering his cry," His sense is that they hear him, but just aren't answering.

And this -- "Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,/ And the sound of iron on stone,/And how the silence surged softly backward,/When the plunging hoofs were gone." First, there were many sounds or images that could potentially have been inserted in those last couple of lines -- many much warmer and more alive. Instead the poet chose "the sound of iron on stone". Second, note how these lines are from the perspective of the listeners (though earlier we were in his head and saw his perplexity and loneliness, his sense the listeners are out there). We are not with the traveler as he rides away -- we are back with the nonresponsive phantoms as the sounds of him fade away and disappear.

To me the tone is quite bleak without a glimmer of hope. I feel isolated just reading it.

01-02-2016, 04:32 AM
I've been thinking about it and there are many doors you can knock on that can go unanswered. Society, or desire, you can scream from the core of your being yet get no response. Sometimes the club you'd like to be in doesn't speak your language, I know he says they listen but I'm not sure they hear him, certainly they don't let him in. He has done what he can and moves on, not getting what he sought but not hanging himself in the yard. Sad, but not hopeless, to me.

01-02-2016, 11:07 AM
That's an interesting view Cella, and a warmer one than mine. What I get is: the traveller, having journeyed however long, reaches his destination and expects some degree of recognition or fulfillment--but no one actually gives a shit because in the grand scheme of things, it just doesn't matter all that much :)

To me, and I know this is far from the original intention, it's kind of like New Year. We journey the distance of a year and experience what that offers; we change, we grow... and those of us that made resolutions may have kept or broken that promise to ourselves. On New Year's eve we look back in reflection on that journey, knock the door of our destination--no one there to acknowledge--we ride off, we journey again.

... ... Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake ... ...

It's almost as if the listeners exist because of the traveller's expectation; he wills them to acknowledge him, but they don't because they're phantoms, created by him to fill the nothingness. Likewise the traveller seems to exist to provide the listeners a purpose (despite that they dont respond, they dont ignore either). There's so much multiplicity in the context of either that the true meaning of this poem could be debated for many years yet, and I'm certain it would be an interesting discussion. I mean, despite the fact that the entire act of of the traveller's visit is pure entropy, the nature of the scene and the juxtaposition of the players hinges on the anthropic principal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle) of the observer. There is a bias toward the traveller from the reader's perspective as we understand, or attempt to apply some human notion of condition or purpose to him and see the immediate narrative space from his perspective--but we actually forget who the observer is, not the traveller or the reader (so should we identify with the traveller?). The narrative is 3rd person, but not in an omnipresent fashion; it leans strongly toward the listeners. Who is observing whom? I feel the phantoms are more than device, they represent what was, what will be and what is, and they're observing this scene from behind the door. Huddled together in silence and listening to every sound. The narrative perspective makes the listener's thus omnipresent, allowing the reader to become one.

01-02-2016, 03:21 PM
I understand that I am stepping away from the poem, refusing to go where the poet may intend to take me, but that's okay with me. A poem is not a finite, closed entity, it can be a springboard. In fact, maybe a successful poem needs to be a springboard, setting off a train of thought in each reader. He has put it out there, but my read is my own, for me the interesting thing about poetry is where it takes me.

Maybe I just don't find it so depressing to accept that we are all alone and all is for nought. It is what it is and our torment will end someday, may as well do the two-step.

Happy New Year. :)

01-02-2016, 03:25 PM
Oh I agree. Poetry tends to morph and change between readers. Good poetry even more so. One thing that excites me about my own is hearing back what people get from it.

I erroneously used the words 'true meaning' in my previous post. What I meant was that there is a distinction between what the poet gives to the poem and what the reader takes from it. Neither is an exclusive truth, but there should be scope for them to co-exist. Different readers = different takes, but 1 poet = one given; the poem when it's out there is a kaleidoscopic view when discussed. As a poet I have no expectation nor do I intend to enforce any particular interpretation of my poems... I think the same is true here. As steppe says. It would have been written very differently if that were the case.

01-02-2016, 06:19 PM
Oh I agree. Poetry tends to morph and change between readers. Good poetry even more so.

I agree that many poems, or lines in poems, often lend themselves to different interpretations.

But on the other hand, I think with a good poem, a poet has spent a good bit of time and thought choosing and crafting the language in a poem. From the vast array of words, images, and metaphors in the universe, he or she has chosen these particular ones, and only these, and has chosen to put them together in this way. A serious consideration of a poem will consider those choices and how they affect the meaning.

While it is possible for readers to walk away with different interpretations of poems, I believe some readings are going to be better supported by the text than others (though certainly sometimes you do get lines or words that lend themselves to multiple interpretations).

When I read a poem (assuming it grabs me -- I admit I don't find every poem worth this kind of trouble), I do a couple of reads to let the initial emotions and images sink in, but then I take it apart and try to consider why the poem made me feel this way, or if indeed it supports that feeling. If the poem is really good, it repays this effort by adding nuances and layers of meaning as I consider why the poet used this word and not that, etc. Many times a poem's meaning shifts as I moved past the pretty exterior I saw on the first read or two and dug under the words.

Of course, if the poet is sloppy and didn't select his/her words, images, etc., with this kind of care, the whole thing falls apart, and I get a bit of a letdown as I do further readings. I've had many a "wow" first read that ended in "meh" after the 6th.


I admit with my own poems, I'm more delighted when someone gets what I meant with a poem than when they walk away with their own interpretation that has nothing to do with my intent. (Though, by and large, I get some happiness from the fact anyone cared enough to read it.) I'm even more pleased when they pick up on nuances I worked to infuse into the poem, or correctly discern why I used a particular metaphor/image/word. To me, that says my time sweating over each of those choices paid off.

When people walk away with a wildly different interpretation than I intended, or simply get nothing from it, I feel that I failed to find the right words, or alternatively, that no one was interested enough to consider whether I did or not. Indeed, I feel a bit like this Traveler, knocking and calling, and getting no reply as my indifferent horse crops the grass. On the other hand, I suppose I can comfort myself that I at least tried to keep my word.

01-02-2016, 07:03 PM
Again, I agree. ;) Like I said, reader's interpretation and poet's intention should both be present in an analysis--there's always passages, verses or a phrase or two that can be taken one way or another, but the overall body of the piece will usually fit in a narrow corridor heading in a common direction.

The real question is the accessibility of the conceits used. As you say, if the reader interpretation is totally outside that corridor or facing the opposite direction, then I'd certainly look at the level of abstraction and how well my metaphor actually fits the subject. Minor deviations, not so much. Yet, at the same time, I do believe a poem should be able to work with no immediate perceivable reality--all depending on the type of poem written, of course. Emotive, confessional, explicit narrative wouldn't work without clear intention, but what my experience and foray into surrealism have taught me is that there is room to try, and sometimes it does work.

01-02-2016, 09:04 PM
Thanks, Kie, for posting this, I'd never read it before. My initial take on this was a gritty sort of satisfaction - I identified with the Traveller who had completed his task and could now move on. . . the listeners, for me, were notions or aspects of his past who didn't care (or hadn't believed )he (would) complete the task. So , just a thought or two on this.
Happy New Year!!

01-03-2016, 11:11 PM

Here is an article on exegesis vs eisegesis in biblical interpretation. It can apply, in my opinion, to interpretation of poems as well.

Exegesis (literally to "lead out of") most think is the correct method of BI.

Eisegesis (literally "to lead into") is not approved by most.

With Eisegesis one is in danger of misinterpretation by injecting own ideas into the text.

Some interpret the "Listeners" as being somehow bound to the Crimean War and can be explained taking that into account.

I think this is a good example of eisegesis (injecting own ideas into the text)

Getting out of a poem what you can, for yourself, is one thing. Saying this is the meaning of said poem is another.

I think those who have given us the meaning of the "Listeners" (except as their opinion) have had to resort to eisegesis.

It is a mystery
to me and

always will be

01-03-2016, 11:21 PM
Excellent and informative post. What would your exegetical analysis be, steppe, if not resorting to eisegetical interpretation?

01-03-2016, 11:21 PM
I think those who have given us the meaning of the "Listeners" (except as their opinion) have had to resort to eisegesis.

I beg to disagree. My interpretation might or might not comport with the poet's intentions, and it might or might not agree with others' interpretations, but I did in fact come to it by following the text (as I demonstrated with quotes) -- as did others in this thread. According the article you posted, that's the definition of exegesis.

Exegesis is the exposition or explanation of a text based on a careful, objective analysis. The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of.” That means that the interpreter is led to his conclusions by following the text.

With all respect, characterizing the thoughtful analyses in this thread as eisegesis comes off, IMO, as rather disrespectful. To quote again from your link:

The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” which means the interpreter injects his own ideas into the text, making it mean whatever he wants.

Obviously, only exegesis does justice to the text. Eisegesis is a mishandling of the text and often leads to a misinterpretation. Exegesis is concerned with discovering the true meaning of the text, respecting its grammar, syntax, and setting. Eisegesis is concerned only with making a point, even at the expense of the meaning of words.

You need not agree with our analyses -- indeed, we do not all agree with one another. But that does not mean that any of us are "concerned only with making a point, even at the expense of the meaning of words."

01-04-2016, 12:21 AM
Cass - I accepted your take on the poem as your opinion. I believe I did state "except as opinion". I found you opinion very interesting indeed. My apologies if I offended you.

Kie - I've never tried to interpret "The Listeners". I accept it as a mystery and some of the best poetry ever. The poem fills me with wonderful mystery and that is enough for me.

Some say that even the poet does not understand in total his/her own poem. Perhaps De La Mare did not either. He never left us (so I'm told) with an interpretation.

01-04-2016, 12:32 AM
Some say that even the poet does not understand in total his/her own poem.

It's not often I don't know what I want to write about or what i'm saying. I'm happy for any reader to understand something else from it, but I feel the effort I put in crafting usually reflects what I want to be taken from it.

01-04-2016, 12:47 AM
It's not often I don't know what I want to write about or what i'm saying. I'm happy for any reader to understand something else from it, but I feel the effort I put in crafting usually reflects what I want to be taken from it.

ditto here; indeed I'd go so far as to say I always know what I want to say.

Steppe, as I said, you need not agree with my take or anyone else's. But disagreeing with our points is not quite the same thing as suggesting we've "mishandled", "misinterpreted", and are "concerned only with making a point, even at the expense of the meaning of words." And by citing that article and saying that those of us who gave an analysis were "resorting to eisegesis," that is the impression you gave.

And yes, since I had given considerable thought to every word in that poem before arriving at an analysis, and taken some trouble crafting posts, complete with quotes, to express my take, I found it rather galling to have it implied that I pulled an interpretation out of the air.


it is not worth quarreling over, and I will drop it.


OK, I must add this: if "eisegesis" (as defined in that link -- i.e., meaning one is misinterpreting words and twisting them to mean what one chooses without support from the text) is used to diss any poetic analysis that delves below the literal surface meaning of the words, then we might as well toss metaphor in the trash. And I should be loath to do that, since metaphor is my favorite.

01-04-2016, 04:54 AM
In "The Triggering Town" by Poet/teacher Richard Hugo, he wrote -

"One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth, was fond of quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like , "How do I know what I think until I see what I've said ."

He further wrote, "A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or "causes" the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That's not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done."

I will most often begin a poem with a "triggering subject" but soon leave it for "the real or generated subject."

I often think that De La Mare did not know what the ending of "The Listeners" would be as he wrote it.

01-04-2016, 05:06 AM
Mark me down as a beginner, then.

My struggle is not to know my truth but rather how best to express it.

01-04-2016, 05:49 AM
It's an interesting theory, Steppe... perhaps de la Mare didn't know how to end the poem, or wasn't even planning to tie it off at all. Using the poem, and only the poem, I think it's fairly safe to say that the piece is primarily scene... it is open ended, in a sense because we observe as the listeners do and cant follow the traveller. But after the traveller leaves, silence returns, nothing left to listen to. That's a very clean and cleverly crafted ending--not by accident, but by design. Sifting back you'll find sound used not to draw focus but embellish the scene, to layer what the listeners can listen to beyond travellers knock and voice--that is also by design. There is nothing incidental about the poem; the poet has not pushed words about to force any meaning, nor has he been flowery or avant garde; de la Mare has carefully layered, and methodically constructed this scene. You can't help but ask why. I doubt the answer is because he could, or that he simply wanted to... even if the poem became about something else (which does happen), something inspired it, and whatever it came to be about is something that can certainly be discussed/interpreted/analysed.

I don't think any poem is beyond analysis. Not just interpretation, but structural analysis: why it works, how it fits together etc. Regardless of meaning. More often than not meaning can be gleaned from that = exegetical interpretation :)

Whether you want to, or not, or whether you agree with what turns up are matters apart.

01-04-2016, 07:12 AM
nicely said, Kie, and I agree.

01-04-2016, 03:46 PM
I take part in a poetry forum for opportunities just like this, to examine and discuss the magic of poetry, to get under the mystery of how it provokes, disturbs and pleases us. If I wanted to guard my own response I wouldn't be here. Poetry, at least for me, is an interactive experience, first between the poem and me and then, when given the chance, I get to learn more about the poem and my own response to it through discussion about other people's responses and their understanding of how the poem achieves the effect it does.

Of course I initially bring myself to the read, who else could I bring at the start, but it is in discussion that I can deepen my own understanding of the poem and understand my response to it. It seems to me a poetry forum would be just the place for this.

So, thank you for the thread, kie, and thank you, cass, for pushing me to think about this piece more, it will stick with me.

01-31-2016, 01:47 PM
Cella, I also believe we grow skill from that. Our craftsmanship and ability evolve alongside our understanding. The ability to recognise what works and why surely leads to the ability to implement? Certainly my own poetry has improved over the years because of this type of analysis, and the debate/discussion.

01-31-2016, 04:43 PM
Totally agree, Kie, also learning to critique other members' work forces me to uncover what works well and how they may have achieved that, and what trips me up and why. Those same points come up in my own work and eventually some of it sinks in. :)

01-31-2016, 05:37 PM
That's the reason why my first comment in crit for new members is usually to read and comment on a selection of poems. :) sometimes that's taken the wrong the way, but I think it's only right...