In the late 1800s and first third of the 1900s, it was common for students in elementary and secondary schools to do “recitations,” a dramatic reading of a poem before a group, with the intent to make it have a strong effect on the listeners. Often these were recited as “show pieces” for school programs and other events. Poems chosen for this purpose were generally narrative poems, that is, poems that tell a story. So there were countless amateur performances of poems then popular among ordinary people, such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Highwayman,” and of course “Casabianca,” with its once well-known beginning:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
Now such poems are generally considered very dated and “old-fashioned” and, to use an expressive American term, rather “corny.” You may even have heard the satire on the beginning of “Casabianca”:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Eating peanuts by the peck.
The deck grew hotter,
His feet got toasted;
But he kept on eating —
He liked ’em roasted.
The “roasted” is of course referring to the peanuts the boy is eating.
All of this is just a lead-in to a narrative poem from 1912 that has held its interest over the years. It is in most of the standard anthologies. But it differs from other narrative poems in that it is a story not fully told, but only hinted at, and the effectiveness of the poem lies in its combination of the incomplete narrative with a very poetic use of words to create a mysterious atmosphere. So it is the atmosphere thus created that keeps this poem popular and interesting.
It was written by the British poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), who composed many poems (like this one) that are works of romantic fantasy, intended to delight by evoking a mood. Today’s poem, which I shall discuss in parts, is called
‘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.
The poem begins with a mystery. We are shown a traveller, but we do not know who he is, or where he is from, or why he has come. This immediately raises a questioning in the mind of the reader that continues throughout the poem; but, as we shall see, it is a question that is never answered. The poet increases the sense of mystery by setting the event at night, in the moonlight. The Traveller knocks on the door of a house (we are not told whose it is or where exactly it is) that seems abandoned. The only response to his knock is a bird that flies up out of a turret on the house. But there is no human response. It is so quiet that we hear the Traveller’s horse chomping on the grass “of the forest’s ferny floor.” That just adds to the mystery — a house in a forest? Is the house beginning to be overgrown by weeds and trees?
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.
Notice the importance given what is NOT there in the poem:
No one descends — comes downstairs — to the Traveller.
No one looks out over a window sill (the ledge at the bottom of a window), now overgrown by leaves, into the Traveller’s grey eyes.
The Traveller stands there in the silence, puzzled by the absence of a response.
But now we find what the poem is really about. It is a ghost story:
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.
There are beings in the silent, moonlit house, but they are not the living; they are phantoms — ghosts — spirits of the dead. The poet tells us there is a “host,” a large number of them. And they listen in the quiet shadows, pierced here and there by moonlight, to the Traveller’s “voice from the world of men,” that is, to a voice from the world of the living. The dead hear the voice of the living Traveller, as they throng the dark stairway with faint moonbeams falling on it, the stairway that goes down to an empty hall. They listen in the “air stirred and shaken” by the “lonely Traveller’s call.” The noise of his knocking and the sound of his call disturb the deathly silence in the house.
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.
In the silence, in the absence of any answer to his loud knocking or to his call, the Traveller somehow senses there are beings inside the house, but that there is something strange and uncanny about them. He can feel their presence, even though all is so still that the only motion and sound he notices is that of his horse still biting off and chewing the dark grasses.
The voice of the Traveller reverberates loudly in the stillness as he raises his head and calls out to whoever — whatever — is inside, asks the strange residents to “Tell them I came,” to tell them “That I kept my word.” Obviously there is a much larger unspoken story here, and the poet is giving us only a hint of it, which makes it all the more mysterious.
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:
The listeners — the phantoms in the house, make not the slightest motion or response, even though every word the traveller speaks echoes his words through the shadows of the house, words from “the one man left awake.” That means “the one man left alive.” Left alive? One left alive of many now dead? What is the larger tale the poet is not telling us? Why is the Traveller the only one left alive? What is his connection to this house and those who once lived there? Why do ghosts — and so many of them — remain in the abandoned house?
All we have are these unanswered questions, the silence, the moonlight.
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.
The Traveller realizes there is nothing more he can do. He had tried to fulfill some important, past promise, for some unexplained purpose, but the response is only silence. Too much time has passed. But the phantoms inside the shadowed house, are aware of everything. They hear his foot touch the stirrup of the horse when he mounts it to leave. They hear the sound of the iron horsehoes on stone cobbles as the horse turns to go with its rider. And the phantoms hear
…how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The alliteration — the repeated “s” sounds — are like a last whisper, replaced by the heavy silence that surges back like a wave to replace the temporary disturbance, when the last sound of the horse’s pounding hoofs (“plunging hoofs”) fades away.
The overall effect of the poem is to make us deeply feel a rather “spooky” but nonetheless strangely beautiful mystery in all this. Who is the Traveller? What promise had he made, and to whom, and why? And what happened in the intervening years, leaving only ghosts within an abandoned and decaying house in a forest? None of this is explained, and it leaves us wondering in the silent moonlight, which is exactly what the poet intended, and why the poem is so successful that it is still read today.
As you can see, there is not a great deal to this poem, nothing really profound or intellectual. There is nothing difficult to understand. It is just a mood, an atmosphere, a “poem of the imagination,” and the poet’s chief tool in creating that atmosphere is his lack of explanation, his refusal to tell us more. It is a poem created out of shadows and moonbeams and spider webs, a word picture of deep silence and stillness troubled only momentarily by sound and movement, like a small pebble tossed into a quiet, dark well.
It is not surprising that Walter de la Mare, in addition to his poetry, wrote a few ghost stories, though nothing much remembered today. But if you like an occasional movie with a shivers-up-the-spine feeling somewhat similar to this poem, you would probably enjoy the film “The Others,” which came out in 2001.