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.)