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'Is there anybody there?' A century of 'The Listeners'

Haunted House by Sean MacEntree, under a Creative Commons licence

A century ago, in May 1912, Walter de la Mare published his second collection of poetry, The Listeners. Although the famous title-poem was actually penned three years earlier, its moment arrived when the collection as a whole was published to praise. Despite recognition during his lifetime, and the admiration of writers such as WH Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Hardy, de la Mare’s reputation as a poet has slumped somewhat since his death in 1956. Mysterious and chilling, ‘The Listeners’ remains his best known work, while its author has grown, rather like the poem’s eponymous characters, somewhat phantasmal.

Whatever the state of de la Mare’s reputation, 'The Listeners' remains loved, surviving even the teaching of it in schools. What is it about the poem that continues to attract attention? It must be its eerie atmospherics. Formally, the poem is relatively straightforward, 36 lines structured by an abcb rhyme scheme (Robert Frost admired the poem’s versification). The language too is clear. It's the story the poem hints at that is enigmatic.

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.

Who is the Traveller? Why in the dead of night has he travelled by horse to a seemingly deserted house – deserted that is but for ‘a host of phantom listeners’? Ghosts? What is the promise he has made, and to whom?

Theories, of course, abound, although perhaps we should bear de la Mare’s own advice in mind: ‘You can’t prove a poem: it proves you.’ Theresa Whistler, de la Mare’s biographer, writes, ‘He would say of poetry how it is said is what it means.” The closest he got to explaining the poem came in the 1950s when he told a friend ‘The Listeners’ was ‘about a man encountering a universe’.

De la Mare eventually refused to allow the poem to be anthologised; it overshadowed the rest of his work even during his lifetime. Quite why he’s not as read as much as he once was is as mysterious as ‘The Listeners’ itself. His poetry is technically adept, intriguing and accessible.

The times overtook him perhaps. Associated with the Georgian poets of the pre-war period, de la Mare lived to see the poetic traditions he grew up with swept away by Modernism. Those first fragmented, despairing, puzzling Modernist poems are often said, with hindsight, to reflect their times, but I wonder if, in the 1920s at least, ‘The Listeners’ didn’t do something similar, bearing in mind the huge popularity of clairvoyants and séances in the wake of WW1. Perhaps there isn’t that much difference after all between ‘The Listeners’ and ‘The Waste Land’, the haunted house of the former expanding into the haunted era of the latter. T S Eliot was in fact an admirer of de la Mare, as well as his publisher, and he went so far as to pen him a tribute:

When the nocturnal traveller can arouse
No sleeper by his call.....

By whom, and by what means, was this designed?

We know the answer to that question, at least.