‘S 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.
Walter de la Mare (b. 1873)
The below is taken from here.
The traveller is actually searching for a lost unbridled imagination, for creativity. It is now gone, and he heads back to the logic-driven reality. One of Walter’s main obsessions was with the ingenuity and vision of the child, and how over time, this is lost. In the traveller’s journey to revisit or recover this way of existince, he can’t stir it. He leaves and re-assures his soul that he tried (‘tell them I came, and no one answered’) . We often say that the soul has windows: note how the traveller peers into the window and sees nothing; no one is there to greet. Why the ‘throng’ no-longer responds ‘perplexes’ him. The listeners (the unbridled imagination) are present, but lie sleeping; discarded and left behind. There is a deathly feel, but it not the death of physical beings, these beings are not ‘from the world of men’.
at least from de la Mare’s perspective, sitting in his room writing, thinking about the unseen audience. Mostly, I don’t intellectulize about it too much but just let it flow through me
That the Traveller is speaking to us, and so the poem itself is an intersection between reality and fantasy or imagination.
To each their own, but I am a little disappointed that this gem is not rated much much higher. I bet every one ends up reading it more than once.. for it forces you to imagine the atmosphere and the mystery.. and make your own interpretations.
Here’s a tribute from T.S Eliot to De la Mare and the mystery of the nocturnal traveller…
When the nocturnal traveller can arouse
No sleeper by his call; or when by chance
An empty face peers from an empty house;
By whom, and by what means, was this designed?
The whispered incantation which allows
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?
By you; by those deceptive cadences
Wherewith the common measure is refined;
By conscious art practised with natural ease;
By the delicate, invisible web you wove –
The inexplicable mystery of sound.