Selected Criticism

"Sleepers, The"(1855)
Hatlen, Burton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The poem that has become known as "The Sleepers" was first published as the fourth of the twelve untitled poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. In the 1856 edition it became "Night Poem," and in the 1860 and 1867 editions it is titled "Sleep-Chasings." It acquired its final title in the 1871 edition. The poem was much revised as it passed through these various editions. Most significantly, after the 1871 edition Whitman excised from the end of section 1 a strikingly explicit description of sexual arousal and orgasm, and at the end of section 7 he eliminated a passage in which the persona identifies first with Lucifer, then with a slave whose "woman" has been sold downriver, and finally with a whale. Some scholars have felt that these deletions were motivated more by Whitman's desire to accomadate his critics than for aesthetic concerns, and for this reason almost all serious students of the poem have returned to the 1855–1871 version. There is a widespread consensus that "The Sleepers" is, among the poems in the 1855 volume, second in significance only to what eventually became "Song of Myself," and one of the five or six most important poems in Whitman's entire poetic corpus. Paul Zweig calls "The Sleepers" the "dark twin of 'Song of Myself'" (245), and other critics have echoed this judgment. "The Sleepers" probes deep into the unconscious dream-world, the "night" side of human consciousness. Many critics have attempted to define what Whitman discovers on this voyage into the darkness, and in the process they have demonstrated that "The Sleepers" is one of Whitman's most complex and rewarding poems.

"The Sleepers" begins with the speaker's uneasy entry into the night-world; proceeds through various episodes, some persuasively dreamlike and others less so; and arrives finally at a luminous vision of the entire human race drawn together in sleep, under the shade of a maternal night. The movement of the poem is partly cyclic: the poem begins as the speaker's portion of the earth's surface passes into darkness, and it ends as that portion begins to re-emerge into the light. But the movement is also linear, insofar as the poem moves from troubled doubt concerning the speaker's relationship to the darkness and to his fellows, to a confident affirmation of the unity of humankind and a soaring celebration of the maternal darkness as the ultimate ground of human existence. Among the major critical questions that the poem poses are, first, does the poem hang together? In our passage from the beginning of the poem to the end, we encounter a series of episodes—an extended image of a drowning swimmer, the story of a shipwreck in which Whitman helped pull bodies from the sea, two vignettes of George Washington, and the story of a Native American woman who visited the poet's mother—that succeed one another more or less arbitrarily. Do these episodes help to develop some unified theme? If not, can we justify Whitman's decision to include these episodes in the poem? And critics have also focused on a second and more important question: how does the poem get from point A to point B, from doubt to certainty? And is the faith that Whitman affirms at the end truly earned and thus rhetorically convincing, or is he simply attempting to hypnotize himself and us with the incantatory power of his language?

One plausible and widely accepted reading of "The Sleepers" sees it as an account of a mystical experience. Thus James E. Miller, Jr., in one of the first (1957) full studies of "The Sleepers," argues that for Whitman "night symbolizes the world of spirituality, and sleep represents death's release of the soul"(130). Miller explains the middle episodes of the poem in accordance with this overall schema, arguing that the story of the "gigantic swimmer" and the story of the shipwreck serve to dramatize the speaker's encounter with death, while the Washington episodes and the story of the Native American woman offer examples of "deep spiritual love" (137). Armed with the knowledge he has gained in these episodes, the speaker emerges into a full spiritual enlightenment in the last two sections of the poem. "The effect of night and sleep—or submergence in the mystical state of the spiritual world—is twofold," Miller asserts; "there is a leveling and there is a healing" (139). More recently, George Hutchinson has taken this interpretation a step further, suggesting that the poem describes the soul-journey of a shaman who acquires through his visions the power to heal both himself and his nation. Readers who come to "The Sleepers" convinced that Whitman was a mystic and that the word "mystic" has a clear significance may find these readings satisfactory. Others, however, may feel that the probing, exploratory movement of the poem argues against any assumption that Whitman has here developed a consciously worked-out system of symbols concerning human spiritual life.

Starting from the genuinely dreamlike, even surrealistic feel of this poem, a second group of critics has applied psychoanalytic methods of analysis to "The Sleepers." As early as 1955, Richard Chase described the poem as dramatizing "the descent of the as yet unformed and unstable ego into the id, its confrontation there of the dark, human tragedy, its emergence in a new, more stable form" (54). The psychoanalytic approach has been further explored by Edwin Haviland Miller, who suggested in 1968 that the "The Sleepers" is "not only a confession, one of Whitman's most personal revelations, but, more important, a reenactment of ancient puberty rites" (72). In his dream, Miller suggests, the "I" engages in a confused and fumbling exploration of his own sexuality. In the wet dream or masturbatory climax of section 1, the dreamer's penis, in the symbol of a pier, reaches out into the water (a feminine symbol), but the dreamer sees the vagina as "toothed" and threatening and therefore recoils. In parts 3 and 4, the sea, still feminine, is still destructive. Section 5 attempts to invoke Washington as a reassuring father figure, but he is ineffectual, and the Native American woman who appears only to vanish "is another destructive maternal figure" (E.H. Miller 81). Sections 7 and 8 attempt to move beyond such negative images of the woman, and Miller believes that Whitman has by the end of the poem emerged into a full adult sexuality. But other psychoanalytic critics, notably Stephen Black, have questioned this reading of the final sections, seeing in them instead an unconvincing attempt to conceal beneath an affirmative rhetoric Whitman's deeply regressive desire to recover a state of undifferentiated unity with the mother.

Orthodox Freudians like E.H. Miller and Black assume that normal adult sexuality is heterosexual, and they judge Whitman as either approaching this norm or deviating from it. But some other critics, although also touched by the influence of psychoanalysis, reject the hypothesis that there is a single model of normal sexuality. Two such critics, Robert K. Martin and Byrne R.S. Fone, have interpreted the sexual feelings expressed in "The Sleepers" as explicitly and unabashedly homosexual. These critics have persuasively interpreted the tangled imagery accompanying the wet dream of section 1 as a fantasy of homosexual fellatio. Fone contends that in the poem, "as the speaker confronts the most primal and irrational facets of his sexuality . . . he will literally eat the phallic flesh and drink the seminal blood of his now fully confirmed homosexual identity" (117). This reading, while offering a persuasive explanation of sections 1 and 2, has more difficulty justifying the presence in the poem of the middle episodes. Martin suggests, not too plausibly, that the story of the Native American woman and the poet's mother offers an example of homoerotic desire between women, but Fone dismisses these episodes in a sentence, describing them as merely "confused nightmare visions of public and conscious loss" (127). But the homosexual reading of the poem does offer a simple explanation of the final sections, where the sense of "love, completion, and well-being" (Fone 127) can be read as a postorgasmic glow. From this perspective, then, the poem follows a natural pattern of rising tension leading to climax and a sense of fulfillment and unity with the cosmos.

Other recent critics, while by no means rejecting the homoerotic reading, have seen important political dimensions in "The Sleepers." For example, Betsy Erkkila has argued that the persona of the poem enters not only into his own unconscious mind but also into "a kind of political unconscious of the nation" (120). Not surprisingly, Erkkila focuses primarily on the middle sections of the poem, where the image of Washington as the tender and loving but also tragic father of the nation suggests some of Whitman's own anxieties about the future of the Union. She sees the story of the Native American woman and Whitman's mother as an idyllic image of a lost ideal: a nation united by bonds of love that transcend racial and regional differences (122). Similarly, in a brilliant recent interpretation, Kerry Larson sees "The Sleepers" as an attempt to mediate between the "I" and the "Union." The "I" of the poem, Larson notes, is shifting and unstable, as it seeks to establish its own existence by identifying in turn with one individual after another. This "I" is "both overspecified and secondary, both at the center of the story and inconsequential to it" (62). This perspective can both account for the sexual confusions of section 1 and the later, more public episodes. In section 3, for example, the gigantic swimmer is the "I" itself, which struggles heroically but vainly to survive in these treacherous seas, and the Washington, Native American woman, and Lucifer episodes all suggest the fragility of the social order. From a political perspective, the upbeat conclusion of the poem suggests that Whitman is whistling in the dark; both Erkkila and Larson find this conclusion unpersuasive, but Larson also senses a deep pathos in the poem's search for a way to "restore a splintered community" (72).

But perhaps the most fruitful line of inquiry in critical discussions of "The Sleepers" has focused on the poem itself as an empowering, liberating and even potentially healing verbal act. In 1966 Howard Waskow suggested that "The Sleepers" is a new and distinctive kind of poem, a "monodrama"—that is, a poem in which the speaker, rather than "describing an action and giving us guides to it,"is actually "going through the action" as the poem occurs (139). "The Sleepers" thus becomes a kind of "action poem," a poem that is primarily "about" the action it is itself performing. What sort of action is "The Sleepers" performing? In a subtle and provocative essay, Mutlu Blasing has argued that the poem issues out of an impulse of transcendence, a desire to merge the self in a larger whole. Whitman, she suggests, recognizes that self-transcendence means the death of the self, but nevertheless he risks this gambit, confident that he can recover his annihilated self in the act of poetic enunciation. Similarly, James Perrin Warren has shown how the language of Whitman's poem creates a "transcendental or poetic self . . . [which] mediates between the poet and the numberless others, between the one and the many" (18). The catalogue in particular, Warren shows, makes possible such mediation, by mingling stative and dynamic causal structures. The muscular movement of Whitman's language can do things that logic knows not of; and it is by trusting the movement of language itself, not by appealing to some mystical and/or erotic power lying beyond language, that Whitman wins his way through to the sense of harmony and unity we hear in the final sections of "The Sleepers."


Abrams, Robert E. "The Function of Dreams and Dream-Logic in Whitman's Poetry."Texas Studies in Literature and Language 17 (1975): 599–616.

Black, Stephen A. Whitman's Journeys into Chaos. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Blasing, Mutlu. "'The Sleepers': The Problem of the Self in Whitman."Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 111–119.

Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1955.

Durand, Régis. "'A New Rhythmus Fitted for Thee': On Some Discursive Strategies in Whitman's Poetry."North Dakota Quarterly 51.1 (1983): 48–56.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Fone, Byrne R.S. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992.

French, R.W. "Whitman's Dream Vision: A Reading of 'The Sleepers.'"Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 8 (1990): 1–15.

Hutchinson, George. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Warren, James Perrin. "'Catching the Sign': Catalogue Rhetoric in 'The Sleepers.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.2 (1987): 16–34.

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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