By the time I had finished my last posting, the word “champing” was echoing in my head. I was saddened by the news that usage of the word has nearly disappeared except in this one context. Not a major human tragedy, true. But the language is diminished by the loss of any colorful expression. What I want to say now is that, in those hours after posting, I began listening, hearing a phrase in my head. Soon it became a whole stanza, then several stanzas. This was not a new poem or song coming through on God’s Radio, as I think Anne Lamott calls those moments when we get a special muse-assist. This was an old poem titled, The Listeners, by Walter de la Mare. I had had to memorize it. In 8th grade.
I don’t mind telling you that’s more than fifty years ago, and that in all the intervening years, I haven’t read or heard the poem even once. It is not one that is currently in vogue (or anywhere else). I’ll post a link here.
Notice, first of all: the narrative is wonderful. Here is a scene that is mostly left unexplained, mysterious. “Tell them I came.” (Tell whom?) “That I kept my word.” (How? About what?) The listeners may be witnesses, but they are not talking. They only listen. And who are they?
The use of sound in this poem is also wonderful—the kind of alliteration these days used in rap sometimes, but not many other places. In Standard English it sounds a little dated, I think. But listen: “. . . the forest’s ferny floor.” “leaf-fringed sill/Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes. . . .” and best of all, “how the silence surged softly backward/when the plunging hoofs were gone.” That last line is brilliant. The sense of closure in the poem is partly dramatic—the Traveler, whoever he was, has departed. But without the alliteration measuring the tide-like encroachment of silence, which puts us in the place of the Listeners rather than with “that voice from the world of men,” we would not feel the moment as de la Mare wanted. Magical.
Clearly the reason my brain found its way back to this poem in the first place is there in the third line: “While his horse in the silence champed the grasses. . ..” Yup. That poor, nearly archaic word, “champing.” That was the key. And not used in the expression I wrote about last time.
I know that memory is very closely connected to our sense of smell. When I smell roses, I am transported to a back yard in Menlo Park , CA where as a young man I took care of a family’s landscaping for four years. Language can also be a trigger. A word—all language—connects us to many things in many ways: ideas, emotions and concepts, of course, and also to memory. When a word gets lost, doorways close. I nearly lost this poem. But once I began listening, noticing that single word in my ear, I was able to recite from memory nearly the whole poem, more than fifty years later.
Please, share the poem. And if you are inclined, read it aloud. Read it to someone. It will reward you. Be a “listener” yourself. Recognize and treasure those words that lead you back or on, or wherever.