The Sleepers Summary
by Walt Whitman

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The Sleepers Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Sleepers” has been called a surrealistic poem. Although it certainly possesses the disconnected incidents and imagery characteristic of dreams, however, it also has a discernible, tripartite structure that suggests a myth of initiation, death, and rebirth. In the first part, which consists of the first two sections, the persona wanders freely at night and sympathetically identifies with a wide variety of sleeping people; in part 2 (sections 3-6) the persona experiences vicariously the destructive and painful aspects of human experience; part 3 (sections 7-9) celebrates the night world of restoration, rebirth, and cosmic unity.

In section 1, as the persona overlooks the sleepers—drunkards, idiots, the insane, a married couple, a mother and child, a prisoner, and others—the night in which they sleep is presented almost as a mystic presence which “pervades them and infolds them,” rather like the Oversoul in the thought of Emerson. The speaker then undergoes some kind of initiation: He pierces the darkness, new beings appear, and he dances and laughs in a bacchanalian whirl, accompanied by divine spirits. The result is that he is able to become the people he is observing and dream their dreams with them. This mystic expansion of the self into all things is similar to the central idea in “Song of Myself.”

Part 2 consists of three unconnected visions. First, a beautiful, nude, male swimmer is caught in a tide which draws him to death; there is also a shipwreck, and the persona desperately tries to effect a rescue, but no one survives. Second, the persona goes back in time to the defeat of General George Washington at Brooklyn Heights in August, 1776. He pictures Washington on two occasions: weeping in defeat with a group of officers around him, and embracing his officers in a tavern when peace was declared. The third vision is a memory from the persona’s early life, when a beautiful Indian woman came to the family homestead one breakfast time. She was received with warmth by the persona’s mother, who regretted having no work to give her. The squaw left in the afternoon, never to return, much to the mother’s regret.

Perhaps this incident was meant to symbolize the loss of an old way of life, in which pure and generous social intercourse was the norm.

In the first version of the poem, it is clear that at this point in his experience, the persona is in a state of psychic disintegration. Three verse paragraphs...

(The entire section is 628 words.)