A peopled silence

I’m trying to remember how Walter de la Mare’s 1912 poem “The Listeners” ended up in my to-read pile, and I suspect it was by way of Robert Aickman, whose cagey, elliptical, and exceedingly unsettling tales of the supernatural I’m just beginning to plumb. I haven’t read enough of either yet to make any interesting judgments about de la Mare’s influence on Aickman, so for now, here’s “The Listeners.” The poem conjures a creeping, velvety sense of estrangement, and of the sort of pressure that the unseen can begin to exert on the imagination at night, and in solitude.


The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ’d 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
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d 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 stirr’d 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 starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
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.

4 thoughts on “A peopled silence”

  1. I hope your reading of Aickman was satisfying! I think he is one of the finest supernatural writers of the 20th century, and I think one of the most important predecessors for his stories were the strange stories of Walter de la Mare (“Seaton’s Aunt” and “The Green Room” especially come to mind). Aickman’s “The School Friend” fits perfectly with those stories, and is one of the most perfect examples of his artistry.

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for your visit! Oh gosh, “satisfying” doesn’t begin to cover it – Aickman is a king, I think it’s such a shame that he’s considered a rather niche author, when he should be discussed on the same level as, say, Shirley Jackson. I hope his work ends up having the longevity and influence that M. R. James’ has had. I still only own one collection of his, though, and a friend’s been borrowing it for a year now, so I miss it dearly…

      Thank you so much for the De la Mare recommendations – I can’t wait to check them out.

  2. Thanks for your kind reply, Emera. I’m delighted that I came across the blog, and I’ve looked at numerous posts. In a world of tweets, you and Kakaner must sometimes feel that your extensive, thoughtful comments are in vain, but I spent over an hour looking up favorites and reading your comments. By the way, the film recommendations were all new to me, and I just ordered _The Witch_, thanks to the blog!

    I’m delighted that you’ve enjoyed the Aickman that you’ve read, and though his work isn’t easy to find, there are some inexpensive used editions of some of the collections of his stories. I got both _Cold Hand in Mine_ and _Painted Devils_ used for under $5. I bought _The Wine-Dark Sea_ at full price, and by then I was hooked; I bit the bullet for the Tartarus _Collected Strange Stories_ collection. There are of course less-than-great Aickman stories, but all of them have been well worth reading. And the best are incomparable. He’s a very different writer from MR James, but he and Monty share one critical quality: restraint. They never say too much (famously, Aickman often says so little that it’s not clear what happened, which is his genius).

    By the way, if you’re looking for De la Mare collections, there are two volumes of collected stories (with all of them) and I just found this inexpensive collection of his classic supernatural tales:


    Thanks again, and I’ll be checking in! /Robert

    1. Thank you so much, Robert – it does often feel like we’re mumbling into the void, so appreciations like yours are unlooked-for and deeply heartening.

      I can’t wait for you to experience The Witch! I hope it makes for a titanic + satanic midnight for you one of these nights.

      I treasure my used hardcover of Cold Hand in Mine – the Gorey cover illustration was an unexpected bonus. I still have to decide whether I’m going to keep hunting for used copies, or go for the Tartarus reprints. I admire your investment in their two-volume Aickman bricks!

      Aickman often says so little that it’s not clear what happened, which is his genius
      He’s the teasingest. I’d love to know how often he had a clear idea of what “really” happened, or if he mostly tried to stay on the same side of the (greyish, sepulchral) curtain as the reader.

      Thanks so much for the De La Mare collection recommendation – I need to get through my untouched (other than Carmilla) Le Fanu collection before I dive into another supernatural great, but I’m excited to have a starting place for WDLM now.

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