'The Sleepers' by Walt Whitman
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I WANDER all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,
Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.
How solemn they look there, stretch'd and still!
How quiet they breathe, the little children in their cradles!
The wretched features of ennuyés, the white features of
corpses, the livid faces of drunkards, the sick-gray faces of
The gash'd bodies on battle-fields, the insane in their strong-door'd
rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging from gates, and
the dying emerging from gates,
The night pervades them and infolds them.10
The married couple sleep calmly in their bed--he with his palm on the
hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the hip of the
The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed,
The men sleep lovingly side by side in theirs,
And the mother sleeps, with her little child carefully wrapt.
The blind sleep, and the deaf and dumb sleep,
The prisoner sleeps well in the prison--the run-away son sleeps;
The murderer that is to be hung next day--how does he sleep?
And the murder'd person--how does he sleep?
The female that loves unrequited sleeps,
And the male that loves unrequited sleeps,20
The head of the money-maker that plotted all day sleeps,
And the enraged and treacherous dispositions--all, all sleep.
I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and the
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them,
The restless sink in their beds--they fitfully sleep.
Now I pierce the darkness--new beings appear,
The earth recedes from me into the night,
I saw that it was beautiful, and I see that what is not the earth is
I go from bedside to bedside--I sleep close with the other sleepers,
each in turn,
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,30
And I become the other dreamers.
I am a dance--Play up, there! the fit is whirling me fast!
I am the ever-laughing--it is new moon and twilight,
I see the hiding of douceurs--I see nimble ghosts whichever way I
Cache, and cache again, deep in the ground and sea, and where it is
neither ground or sea.
Well do they do their jobs, those journeymen divine,
Only from me can they hide nothing, and would not if they could,
I reckon I am their boss, and they make me a pet besides,
And surround me and lead me, and run ahead when I walk,
To lift their cunning covers, to signify me with stretch'd arms, and
resume the way;40
Onward we move! a gay gang of blackguards! with mirth-shouting music,
and wild-flapping pennants of joy!
I am the actor, the actress, the voter, the politician;
The emigrant and the exile, the criminal that stood in the box,
He who has been famous, and he who shall be famous after to-day,
The stammerer, the well-form'd person, the wasted or feeble person.
I am she who adorn'd herself and folded her hair expectantly,
My truant lover has come, and it is dark.
Double yourself and receive me, darkness!
Receive me and my lover too--he will not let me go without him.
I roll myself upon you, as upon a bed--I resign myself to the
He whom I call answers me, and takes the place of my lover,
He rises with me silently from the bed.
Darkness! you are gentler than my lover--his flesh was sweaty and
I feel the hot moisture yet that he left me.
My hands are spread forth, I pass them in all directions,
I would sound up the shadowy shore to which you are journeying.
Be careful, darkness! already, what was it touch'd me?
I thought my lover had gone, else darkness and he are one,
I hear the heart-beat--I follow, I fade away.
O hot-cheek'd and blushing! O foolish hectic!60
O for pity's sake, no one must see me now! my clothes were stolen
while I was abed,
Now I am thrust forth, where shall I run?
Pier that I saw dimly last night, when I look'd from the windows!
Pier out from the main, let me catch myself with you, and stay--I
will not chafe you,
I feel ashamed to go naked about the world.
I am curious to know where my feet stand--and what this is flooding
me, childhood or manhood--and the hunger that crosses the
The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking,
Laps life-swelling yolks--laps ear of rose-corn, milky and just
The white teeth stay, and the boss-tooth advances in darkness,
And liquor is spill'd on lips and bosoms by touching glasses, and the
best liquor afterward.70
I descend my western course, my sinews are flaccid,
Perfume and youth course through me, and I am their wake.
It is my face yellow and wrinkled, instead of the old woman's,
I sit low in a straw-bottom chair, and carefully darn my grandson's
It is I too, the sleepless widow, looking out on the winter midnight,
I see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth.
A shroud I see, and I am the shroud--I wrap a body, and lie in the
It is dark here under ground--it is not evil or pain here--it is
blank here, for reasons.
It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer, swimming naked through the eddies
of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head--he strikes out with
courageous arms--he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body--I see his undaunted eyes,
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head-foremost on
What are you doing, you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? Will you kill him in the prime of
his middle age?
Steady and long he struggles,
He is baffled, bang'd, bruis'd--he holds out while his strength holds
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood--they bear him away--
they roll him, swing him, turn him,
His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is continually
bruis'd on rocks,90
Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.
I turn, but do not extricate myself,
Confused, a past-reading, another, but with darkness yet.
The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind--the wreck-guns sound,
The tempest lulls--the moon comes floundering through the drifts.
I look where the ship helplessly heads end on--I hear the burst as
she strikes--I hear the howls of dismay--they grow fainter and
I cannot aid with my wringing fingers,
I can but rush to the surf, and let it drench me and freeze upon me.
I search with the crowd--not one of the company is wash'd to us
In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a
Now of the older war-days, the defeat at Brooklyn,
Washington stands inside the lines--he stands on the intrench'd
hills, amid a crowd of officers,
His face is cold and damp--he cannot repress the weeping drops,
He lifts the glass perpetually to his eyes--the color is blanch'd
from his cheeks,
He sees the slaughter of the southern braves confided to him by their
The same, at last and at last, when peace is declared,
He stands in the room of the old tavern--the well-belov'd soldiers
all pass through,
The officers speechless and slow draw near in their turns,
The chief encircles their necks with his arm, and kisses them on the
He kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another--he shakes hands,
and bids good-by to the army.110
Now I tell what my mother told me to-day as we sat at dinner
Of when she was a nearly grown girl, living home with her parents on
the old homestead.
A red squaw came one breakfast time to the old homestead,
On her back she carried a bundle of rushes for rush-bottoming chairs,
Her hair, straight, shiny, coarse, black, profuse, half-envelop'd her
Her step was free and elastic, and her voice sounded exquisitely as
My mother look'd in delight and amazement at the stranger,
She look'd at the freshness of her tall-borne face, and full and
The more she look'd upon her, she loved her,
Never before had she seen such wonderful beauty and purity,120
She made her sit on a bench by the jamb of the fireplace--she cook'd
food for her,
She had no work to give her, but she gave her remembrance and
The red squaw staid all the forenoon, and toward the middle of the
afternoon she went away,
O my mother was loth to have her go away!
All the week she thought of her--she watch'd for her many a month,
She remember'd her many a winter and many a summer,
But the red squaw never came, nor was heard of there again.
Now Lucifer was not dead--or if he was, I am his sorrowful terrible
I have been wrong'd--I am oppress'd--I hate him that oppresses me,
I will either destroy him, or he shall release me.130
Damn him! how he does defile me!
How he informs against my brother and sister, and takes pay for their
How he laughs when I look down the bend, after the steamboat that
carries away my woman!
Now the vast dusk bulk that is the whale's bulk, it seems mine;
Warily, sportsman! though I lie so sleepy and sluggish, the tap of my
flukes is death.
A show of the summer softness! a contact of something unseen! an
amour of the light and air!
I am jealous, and overwhelm'd with friendliness,
And will go gallivant with the light and air myself,
And have an unseen something to be in contact with them also.
O love and summer! you are in the dreams, and in me!140
Autumn and winter are in the dreams--the farmer goes with his thrift,
The droves and crops increase, and the barns are well-fill'd.
Elements merge in the night--ships make tacks in the dreams,
The sailor sails--the exile returns home,
The fugitive returns unharm'd--the immigrant is back beyond months
The poor Irishman lives in the simple house of his childhood, with
the well-known neighbors and faces,
They warmly welcome him--he is barefoot again, he forgets he is well
The Dutchman voyages home, and the Scotchman and Welshman voyage
home, and the native of the Mediterranean voyages home,
To every port of England, France, Spain, enter well-fill'd ships,
The Swiss foots it toward his hills--the Prussian goes his way, the
Hungarian his way, and the Pole his way,150
The Swede returns, and the Dane and Norwegian return.
The homeward bound, and the outward bound,
The beautiful lost swimmer, the ennuyé, the onanist, the
female that loves unrequited, the money-maker,
The actor and actress, those through with their parts, and those
waiting to commence,
The affectionate boy, the husband and wife, the voter, the nominee
that is chosen, and the nominee that has fail'd,
The great already known, and the great any time after to-day,
The stammerer, the sick, the perfect-form'd, the homely,
The criminal that stood in the box, the judge that sat and sentenced
him, the fluent lawyers, the jury, the audience,
The laugher and weeper, the dancer, the midnight widow, the red
The consumptive, the erysipelite, the idiot, he that is wrong'd,160
The antipodes, and every one between this and them in the dark,
I swear they are averaged now--one is no better than the other,
The night and sleep have liken'd them and restored them.
I swear they are all beautiful;
Every one that sleeps is beautiful--everything in the dim light is
The wildest and bloodiest is over, and all is peace.
Peace is always beautiful, The myth of heaven indicates peace and
The myth of heaven indicates the Soul;
The Soul is always beautiful--it appears more or it appears less--it
comes, or it lags behind,170
It comes from its embower'd garden, and looks pleasantly on itself,
and encloses the world,
Perfect and clean the genitals previously jetting, and perfect and
clean the womb cohering,
The head well-grown, proportion'd and plumb, and the bowels and
joints proportion'd and plumb.
The Soul is always beautiful,
The universe is duly in order, everything is in its place,
What has arrived is in its place, and what waits is in its place;
The twisted skull waits, the watery or rotten blood waits,
The child of the glutton or venerealee waits long, and the child of
the drunkard waits long, and the drunkard himself waits long,
The sleepers that lived and died wait--the far advanced are to go on
in their turns, and the far behind are to come on in their
The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite--
they unite now.180
The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed,
They flow hand in hand over the whole earth, from east to west, as
they lie unclothed,
The Asiatic and African are hand in hand--the European and American
are hand in hand,
Learn'd and unlearn'd are hand in hand, and male and female are hand
The bare arm of the girl crosses the bare breast of her lover--they
press close without lust--his lips press her neck,
The father holds his grown or ungrown son in his arms with
measureless love, and the son holds the father in his arms with
The white hair of the mother shines on the white wrist of the
The breath of the boy goes with the breath of the man, friend is
inarm'd by friend,
The scholar kisses the teacher, and the teacher kisses the scholar--
the wrong'd is made right,
The call of the slave is one with the master's call, and the master
salutes the slave,190
The felon steps forth from the prison--the insane becomes sane--the
suffering of sick persons is reliev'd,
The sweatings and fevers stop--the throat that was unsound is sound--
the lungs of the consumptive are resumed--the poor distress'd
head is free,
The joints of the rheumatic move as smoothly as ever, and smoother
Stiflings and passages open--the paralyzed become supple,
The swell'd and convuls'd and congested awake to themselves in
They pass the invigoration of the night, and the chemistry of the
night, and awake.
I too pass from the night,
I stay a while away, O night, but I return to you again, and love
Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?
I am not afraid--I have been well brought forward by you; 200
I love the rich running day, but I do not desert her in whom I lay so
I know not how I came of you, and I know not where I go with you--but
I know I came well, and shall go well.
I will stop only a time with the night, and rise betimes;
I will duly pass the day, O my mother, and duly return to you.
Editor 1 Interpretation
The Sleepers by Walt Whitman: A Masterpiece of Allegory and Symbolism
Walt Whitman's "The Sleepers" is a true masterpiece of American poetry. The poem, which was first published in the 1860 edition of "Leaves of Grass," is a remarkable exploration of the human condition and the nature of existence. At the same time, it is a deeply allegorical and symbolic work that invites multiple interpretations.
The poem is structured as a series of vignettes, each describing a different sleeping individual who is visited by the poet. The sleepers represent a diverse range of people, including the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the old and the young, and the male and the female. Each sleeper is presented as a metaphor for a different aspect of human experience, and the poem as a whole can be read as a meditation on the fragility and fleetingness of life.
At its core, "The Sleepers" is a work of deep empathy and compassion. Whitman's speakers move through the world with a sense of profound connection to every living being, and this is evident in the way that he writes about the sleepers. Each sleeper is presented with a sense of tenderness and reverence, as if they are precious and irreplaceable. This approach is particularly striking when contrasted with the way that many of the sleepers are implicitly condemned by society for their perceived faults or shortcomings. For example, the first sleeper that the poet encounters is a "prostitute" who is sleeping with her client. Despite the fact that this behavior would have been considered scandalous in Whitman's time, the poet treats the woman with the utmost respect and dignity.
One of the most intriguing aspects of "The Sleepers" is the way that it uses symbolism to create a sense of depth and resonance. The poem is rife with images that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and this allows the work to speak to readers on multiple levels. For example, the sleepers themselves can be seen as symbols for the different stages of human life, from birth to death. The fact that the speaker is moving through a graveyard in the opening lines of the poem only reinforces this idea.
Another important symbol in the poem is the idea of sleep itself. Sleep is a state of unconsciousness that is often associated with death, and this creates a sense of ambiguity around the sleepers. Are they truly alive, or are they already dead? This ambiguity is reinforced by the fact that many of the sleepers are described as being in a state of "trance," which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the way that people move through life without fully engaging with the world around them.
One of the most striking elements of "The Sleepers" is the way that it plays with the idea of time. The poem is structured as a series of flashbacks, with the speaker moving backwards and forwards through time as he encounters each sleeper. This creates a sense of fragmentation and dislocation, which is reinforced by the poem's use of short, fragmented sentences. This style of writing was highly unconventional for Whitman's time, and it gives the poem a sense of urgency and vitality that is still palpable today.
Despite its many strengths, "The Sleepers" is not without its flaws. The poem's focus on the individual sleepers can sometimes feel disjointed, and it can be difficult to discern an overarching narrative or theme. Additionally, some readers may find the poem's use of archaic language and syntax to be challenging or off-putting.
In conclusion, "The Sleepers" is a remarkable work of American poetry that is both deeply allegorical and profoundly empathetic. The poem's use of symbolism and fragmented structure creates a sense of depth and resonance that is as relevant today as it was over a century ago. While the poem may not be to everyone's taste, it remains an important and influential part of the American literary canon.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
The Sleepers: A Masterpiece by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, the father of free verse poetry, is known for his unconventional style and his ability to capture the essence of life in his works. One of his most celebrated poems, The Sleepers, is a perfect example of his unique style and his ability to convey deep emotions through his words.
The Sleepers is a long poem that was first published in 1860 in the third edition of Leaves of Grass. It is a poem that explores the theme of human identity and the interconnectedness of all things. The poem is divided into nine sections, each of which explores a different aspect of human life and experience.
The poem begins with a description of a group of people who are sleeping. Whitman describes them as "the sleepers" and paints a vivid picture of their peaceful slumber. He then goes on to describe the dreams that these sleepers are having, and the various scenes that are playing out in their minds.
As the poem progresses, Whitman delves deeper into the dreams of the sleepers, exploring their innermost thoughts and desires. He describes the dreams of a young man who dreams of love and adventure, and the dreams of an old man who dreams of his youth and the memories of his past.
Whitman also explores the dreams of women, describing their desires for love and companionship. He speaks of the dreams of mothers, who dream of their children and the joys of motherhood. He also speaks of the dreams of soldiers, who dream of glory and honor on the battlefield.
Throughout the poem, Whitman weaves a tapestry of human experience, exploring the hopes, dreams, and fears of people from all walks of life. He speaks of the joys of love and companionship, the pain of loss and separation, and the beauty of nature and the world around us.
One of the most striking aspects of The Sleepers is the way in which Whitman uses language to convey his message. His use of free verse and unconventional syntax gives the poem a sense of spontaneity and fluidity, as if the words are flowing directly from his mind onto the page.
Whitman's use of repetition is also notable, as he repeats certain phrases and images throughout the poem, creating a sense of unity and coherence. For example, he repeats the phrase "the sleepers" throughout the poem, reminding the reader of the central theme of the poem and the interconnectedness of all things.
Another notable aspect of The Sleepers is the way in which Whitman explores the theme of identity. Throughout the poem, he speaks of the various identities that people assume in their lives, from the roles they play in society to the dreams and desires that define them as individuals.
Whitman also explores the idea of the self, and the way in which our sense of self is shaped by our experiences and interactions with the world around us. He speaks of the way in which our dreams and desires shape our identity, and the way in which our identity is constantly evolving and changing.
Overall, The Sleepers is a masterpiece of poetry that explores the depths of human experience and the interconnectedness of all things. Whitman's use of language and his ability to capture the essence of life in his words make this poem a timeless classic that continues to resonate with readers today.
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