Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although the poem took different titles over the years of its revisions (indicating that it resisted the final formulation that a title can impose), its settled title focuses upon the figures asleep in a night of the poet’s dreaming. The poet-speaker is one of the sleepers, but he is also all of them at once in his “vision” of them asleep, of them awake, and of them dead and dying. He enters the dreams of sleepers to become the figures of their dreams, just as they are the figures of his dreams.

There are three points of view, perhaps four, in “The Sleepers.” The subject of sleeping becomes a theme of interest because of these shifting points of view, as sleeping is turned from a literal into a metaphorical term: physical sleep (as death-in-life), with its resting physical energy, is transformed into the spiritual energy of life-in-death. The mode of this transformation is poetic vision, a power of imagination capable of penetrating all objects; it reshapes the grotesque, shapes the shapeless, and restores life to the lifeless.

The most self-conscious point of view is that of the poet-speaker, who announces his movements of consciousness; he is aware that he sleeps and dreams in his sleep. This speaking subject is like the subject of psychoanalysis, the one who reports a dream as a memory recollected from sleep. There is another, more constricted, speaker within the poet-as-speaker: one who moves within the dream, the...

(The entire section is 402 words.)