My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (4)

Fred had two poems which he really enjoyed. Last time we took a look at the first one of the two, “Tarantella”, which was written by Hilaire Belloc. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Fred’s second poem, “The Listeners” which was written by Walter de la Mare. This poem is great for children of around nine or ten, because it leaves so many questions unanswered and they can be asked to contribute their own ideas to the discussion:

‘Is 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 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.

So….no answer when the grey-eyed traveller knocked on the moonlit door. The place is completely deserted. Or is it?

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.

In other words, not just one ghost but a host of unidentified phantoms. Are they going to make their presence known?

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;

The ghosts just prefer to remain still. Saying nothing and totally unseen. The Traveller knocks loudly a second time.

For he suddenly smote the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head: –
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.

But it has no effect. They can hear every word from the Traveller, but prefer to say nothing. And they can hear his departure. His foot into the stirrup and the horse’s shoes on the  stone cobbles.

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.

And off he goes. The silent ghosts reclaim their building as soon as the Traveller is gone. And the building returns to its usual deserted state:

But why did he say ‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, That I kept my word,’? Alas, there are no hints given on that score, although clearly, there is some connection between all three protagonists, namely, the Traveller, the lone house and the listeners.

I think that the poem is as simple as that. It’s rather like when a stranger knocks on the door of the house next door to yours.  They wait for an answer but “answer came there none“. (Thank you, Lewis. Now just be quiet).

And you never do find out why they were knocking.





Filed under History, Literature, Personal, Writing

13 responses to “My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (4)

  1. There is a haunted feeling to the poem. I wonder what it was that made him come there to keep his word. The mystery adds to atmosphere. Thank you for sharing. It is nice that you and your father could interact and talk about his interests.

    • I think that a lot of people have wondered why the traveller turned up as he did ! If you have time, just look at Rosaliene Bacchus’ comment below. She has come up with a really ingenious solution.
      I’m glad that my Dad told me lots of tales, and I’m glad too that I wrote them all down as soon as he died. That really did keep him alive in a strange kind of way, especially a section where I recorded all of the words and expression he used to use. When I read those now, it’s almost as if he is still in the room.

  2. A fine analysis and use of the poem

  3. Nick Butler

    What an utter delight to find this lovely blog! I was looking for a present about Nottingham High School for my Dad and saw your book and one of the reviews of it mentioned this blog. Have only read a few of the posts so far but fascinating stuff and so well researched – brilliant! As someone with an interest in history and a native of Nottinghamshire (although now resident in Sweden) and former high school pupil it’s right up my street – thank you! In fact if I remember correctly you were my form teacher in the second year in 1984-1985 – form 2L I believe it was called (I think room W3), as well as my French teacher and later my Russian Studies teacher. Always grateful for the great time I had at the school, so many thanks for contributing to that. Looking forward to reading more posts here!

  4. A fascinating poem, John. It’s filled with mystery and the emptiness of a home once filled with much life. I, too, was struck by the words “‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, / That I kept my word,’ he said.” It brought to mind a soldier, returning from war, who visits the home of the parents of a fallen soldier, as he had promised his dying friend.

    • Wow ! That’s a wonderful solution to why the Traveller turned up and to why nobody answered him. Perhaps the parents of the fallen soldier were so distraught that they had abandoned the family home as it reminded them too much of their son.

  5. It’s a fascinating poem John and I can see why your father liked it so much. The intrigue and ‘openness’ of the entire script certainly does leave questions unanswered. I can imagine some intelligent 9/10 year olds asking some intelligent questions about it.

    • I can’t work out if the critics have a theory about the background to the Traveller’s motive in coming to the house, or if they are as stumped as everybody else.
      The consensus on the Internet is that the poet is trying to show how many things in our world are unknowable. We will never understand why the Traveller is there, just as we will never know if there is a God or a Loch Ness monster. And that was the poet’s purpose in writing the poem.
      So, it’s back to your intelligent 9/10 year olds to give us a few ideas!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: