The atmosphere that this poem evokes reminds me of the deadly silence and stillness of Winter – that stillness that at other times of the year differs greatly – when all creatures are deep in hibernation and there are few leaves left to rustle on the trees. I find the line “Tell them I came, and no one answered, | That I kept my word” haunting and the ‘listeners’ in their silent reply eerie. The line: “silence surged softly backward” suggests that silence itself is an imposing sound or force which contradicts the concept of silence as peaceful. Apparently in his last days, Thomas Hardy asked his wife to read this poem to him in the middle of the night.
“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveler,
Knocking on te 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 Traveler’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveler;
No head from the lead-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray eyes,
Where he stood perplexed 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,
Harkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’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 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.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Thought every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
At, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on the stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When plunging hoofs were gone.
Walter de la Mare