Walt Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers” opens with the line “I wander all night in my vision” and proceeds to describe the poet’s travels in his nocturnal imagination. With unflagging enthusiasm, he pictures a host of colorful sleepers, meeting them “face to face,” “bending with open eyes” over their “shut eyes”: children in cradles, drunkards, married couples, corpses, “sacred idiots,” and the blind. Moving from bedside to bedside, he lists a great variety of slumberers. Then, as if exemplifying Arthur Rimbaud’s “I is another,” he expands further, empathizing with all of them: actor, actress, voter, politician, emigrant, exile, stammerer, male and female, beloved and lover, requited and unrequited. There is a wonderful and unexpected moment when his excitement drives him further into his poem:
O hotcheeked and blushing! O foolish hectic!
O for pity’s sake, no one must see me now! …. My clothes were
stolen while I was abed,
Now I am thrust forward, where shall I run?
Many of us have had similar dreams of finding ourselves seriously underdressed.
The next section of the poem is different. In it, none of the figures are sleeping, and the poet descends not into sleep but into death. Whitman suddenly ages and identifies with an old woman darning her grandson’s socks, next with a “sleepless widow looking out on the winter midnight,” then with the light of the stars glittering on the snow. The cold and the pallor of the snow lead him to seeing a shroud, and, with typical Whitmanic magic, he becomes the shroud, on a corpse underground. Like the tribal shaman (or anyone who has just gotten a good report after a scary visit to the doctor), the one who returns from the underworld tells the value what they have: “It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy; / Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.”
The third section describes a “beautiful gigantic swimmer” who struggles against sea waves that bash him around until he drowns. This peculiar and haunting section sounds as though it might have come from one of Whitman’s own dreams.
Section 4 is something of a continuation of section 3: “I turn but do not extricate myself.” Standing on a beach, the poet witnesses a shipwreck at night: “I hear the burst as she strikes… I hear the howls of dismay….” He searches the beach “with the crowd,” and in the morning helps “pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn.”
The fifth section begins with more death imagery (a description of George Washington weeping over the slaughter of his young soldiers) but it veers off into what sounds like a tableau vivant of the General bidding good-bye to his army. Whitman doesn’t tell us whether these are dream scenes or historical scenes that, in the memory, take on the aura of dreams.
He is more explicit in section 6: “Now I tell what my mother told me today as we sat at dinner together.” One morning, when his mother was still living at home with her parents, an astonishingly beautiful Indian woman wandered in and stayed until the middle of the afternoon, and then she left, never to be seen again. His mother had wanted her to stay, and missed her terribly, and remembered her all those years. The section concludes with a curse against Lucifer, who separates people, who interferes and permeates all experiences with death.
As if the poet has had enough of death, section 7 builds into a quiet ode to the beauty of all of the dreaming persons the poet has observed in his peripatetic vision. The poem is infused with “love and summer,” and everything is made right: the immigrants and exiles return to their homelands, where they are welcomed warmly. Everyone is made equal and restored, made beautiful in the “dim night,” individuals united in a cosmic peace.
But Whitman goes even further; in section 8 he joins whole continents together:
The Asiatic and African are hand in hand .. the European and
American are hand in hand,
Learned and unlearned are hand in hand .. and male and female are
hand in hand.
These repetitions have a lulling, soothing effect as this section rises into an ecstatic hymn of “matings.” The sexes embrace. Parents embrace their children, teachers students, masters slaves. The ill are restored to health; the insane become sane, the paralyzed supple. Whitman’s vision performs miracles! His voice is vatic—exorcizing evil, embracing the cosmos, healing those in strife and pain—but, at the same time, surprisingly down-to-earth.
The closing lines of “The Sleepers” invoke and salute the night that is the archetypal Mother, the poet’s muse, the sine qua non for what has happened in the poem. The poet himself was “yielded” (born) from night. Night has allowed his illumination of a unified and perfected humanity, and so he acknowledged his muse’s power.
“The Sleepers” is a fairly straightforward poem. Its language is accessible. In his open letter to Emerson, included in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman proclaimed that he would “meet people and The States face to face”—the way he meets the sleepers in the poem—“to confront them with an American rude tongue,” by which he meant ordinary, vernacular language. The poem is also straight forward in that it comes directly from the poet’s heart. Without the intermediary of symbols or “literary” maneuvering, the reader experiences both the trajectory of a powerful revelation and his or her own place in it. Whitman’s vision is of a true democracy, in which our strength is a “unity in diversity.” There is room for everyone in this attractive, healing vision, in which everyone in the entire world is in love with everyone else.
We can’t be sure how the poem was composed, but because “The Sleepers” is a rather long poem, it would have been difficult to write in one sitting. Notice the shifts in mood between the different sections, and how the poem picks up the same theme again and again, but introduces and colors it in different ways. Although it has an undeniable flow and continuity, it starts and stops. It reiterates constantly. Notice, too, how within stanzas Whitman uses dots, dashes, semicolons, and colons to keep the poem moving along, and how he uses periods (or other stop punctuation) at the end of each stanza. For example, the first stanza of section 8 (which includes fourteen very long lines) opens with “The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed” and proceeds to describe those sleepers in a list that is enhanced by punctuation that keeps the flow alive and fluid, as in:
The felon steps forth from the prison …. the insane becomes sane
…. the suffering of sick persons is relieved,
The sweatings and fevers stop … the throat that was unsound is
sound … the lungs of the consumptive are resumed … the poor
distressed head is free …
eventually moving to a last line that calls the whole stanza together in a final end-stop: “They pass the invigoration of the night and the chemistry of the night and awake.” After a breath, the next stanza’s opening line shifts the focus abruptly to the personal “I”: “I too pass from the night.” Whitman also varies the pace of his poem by questioning and exclaiming, as in “The murderer that is to be hung the next day …. how does he sleep?/ And the murdered person … how does he sleep?” or “What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?” and “I am a dance …. Play up here! the fit is whirling me fast” or “O love and summer! you are in the dreams and in me.” He also skillfully exercised the present tense throughout, giving the poem its immediacy, timelessness, and “averaging” aspect. We are thrust into a permanent state of inspiring—and ironically active—slumber.
Read “The Sleepers” the way it was written: with feelings and senses open. Feel the pulse of the language, the heave of Whitman’s lines. (You could read it aloud solo or with others reading individual lines.) As you read, visualize the sleepers, as Whitman does; let your mind and imagination expand. Try not to hold back. You might make a list of the active verbs he uses—almost all of his verbs, as noted, are in the present tense. Notice how he uses the pronoun “I” and how that contrasts with his descriptions of others. Notice also how we move back and forth from his imagined and projected vision to his more experiential “personal” vision. The former is all-inclusive; the latter seems linked particularly to the poet’s own psychological need to reshape the world through the act of writing. Do we share the same need, or is it enough to be included in his fantasy of a united humanity? It is intriguing to think about where we are situated as audience. Between the two? Somewhere between sleeping and waking?
An interesting writing experiment is to write a piece focusing on a theme (as Whitman did with sleep), some common human activity. Take running, for example, and make a big list of runners that you have seen and that you can imagine. Or imagine all the people you can think of working at desks. Start each line with a simple “I see” or “I watch.” Write down the “minute particulars” of what you visualize. Let your mind free-associate (or, as Whitman called it, “wander”). In your first draft, don’t be afraid of being too grandiose, panoramic, all-encompassing, even sentimental; you can always change it later. Jump into the maelstrom of humanity, as Whitman does.
From The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1991). Used with the permission of Teachers & Writers.