The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In its final version, “The Sleepers” contains 184 lines, in free verse, divided into eight sections with varying numbers of lines. In the first section, the speaker overcomes initial disorientation by fixing his attention on the ordered arrangement of sleepers, from children in their cradles to a mother sleeping with her child “carefully wrapt.” The poet embraces all in his vision, arranging them in pairs of opposites. He pauses to comfort the restless. He lies down with others, to become each and all; he enters their dreams and becomes “a dance” of vitality. He encounters strange, delightful companions who move with him, “a gay gang of blackguards.” The poet-speaker becomes both beloved and lover at the end of the first section: He is the woman waiting in the dark, and he is the man who arrives to love; then he is confused between them, as he becomes the dark itself. Finally, he fades away with the dark.

The second section is a descent toward death. Here the speaker is first an old woman, then a “sleepless widow,” and finally a shroud covering a corpse in its coffin, in its grave.

In the third section, the speaker bursts from the grave to watch a swimmer battling “swift-running eddies” of the sea. The poet helplessly calls out for the sea to cease its assault on the swimming man, but the scene ends with the drowning of the swimmer, whose body is dashed until his corpse is driven out of sight.

As if from the same beach as in section 3, the next section reports an account of a shipwreck. Here, the poet hears sounds of distress and cries of fear that diminish into...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Each section of “The Sleepers” contains a varying number of stanzas, or verse paragraphs, with varying numbers of lines of free verse. Each stanzaic unit is also a grammatical whole, a statement complete in itself, whose form generally extends a first line into longer and longer lines. This creates an impression of energetic progress, from line to line, stanza to stanza, section to section.

Although each line of verse is “free” (that is, unmeasured), it is not without form. The devices that give form to the poem are parallelism, repetition, and controlled point of view. The most emphatic is parallelism. There is a balancing of grammatical units, usually at the beginnings of lines, to create a “rhetorical rhyme.” For example, in the first stanza of section 1, lines 2 through 5 are introduced with present participles: “Stepping,” “Bending,” “Wandering,” and “Pausing.” These create continuous action, present process. The second stanza of section 1 consists of two lines, each beginning with the same word, “How”: a couplet of initial, exact rhyme. Stanzas 3 through 5 in section 1 are a series (a catalog) of phrases and clauses introduced by “The.” These lines of noun phrases (third-person objects) are countered in later stanzas with parallel first-person openings: “I stand,” “I pass,” “I go,” and so on. Parallelism occurs at the ends as well as at the beginnings of lines, through repetition of the same grammatical forms and, sometimes, the same word: “sleep” or “sleeps” ends eight lines between lines 15 and 25.

Images of movement abound in the poem, outward balancing inward movement: The speaker “steps” out to start the poem, “pierces the darkness,” “descends,” “turns,” and finally “returns.” This movement is governed by a controlling “I” as a central point of view, outside the vision at the same time it enters and moves through the vision. The final three stanzas of the poem appropriately turn around initial, parallel line openings on the word “I”; seven of the last eight lines begin this way, as if each line were a radius emanating from a central “I.” The subject “I,” however, does not finally dominate, and a sense of great egotism is avoided since the final word of the poem is “you.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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