The Sleepers: by Walt Whitman - Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction. The Sleepers is a long poem containing more than one hundred and eighty lines of unequal length without any consideration for any conventional metrical or rhyming patterns. We can detect the rhythmic flow of the Biblical sentences and the happy melodious diction of the blank verse of Shakespeare in Whitman’s poetry. We find the poem divided into eight sections of unequal length with no marked individuality in them. As in all of Whitman’s poems the ideas are too many and they flow in too confused a cascade to be grouped separately, or analyzed cogently. The original name of the poem was Night Poem and then it was changed into Sleep Chasings and finally to Sleepers.

      Summary. Everyone, irrespective of his age, sex, linguistic, geographic, economic, social, national or other status, goes to sleep. The sleepers lose their individual identity and become undifferentiated so as to be universally beautiful. The poet takes a journey round in his dreamy imagination and sees that it is the night and sleep that likened and restored them. The night is a fundamentally original source of creativity, a transcendental source of being where the temporal gets dissolved in the eternal. The poet sees all sorts of people endeavoring to enjoy their eagerly sought for rest and relaxation.

      The first section reveals how solemn the sleepers appear stretched and still, how quietly they breathe, how the children in their cradles, the wretched drunkards, the sick gray onanists and others show different types of faces. The night pervades them and enfolds them. The poet identifies himself with the actor, actress, voter, politician, emigrant exile, criminal, the famous and the ignoble. Ultimately, he expatiates on his identity with a young woman and the erotic feelings aroused in him thereby.

      In the sections 2-5 the poe sleepless widow and some other things. He finds a naked swimmer with his body bruised and turned into a corpse. He watches a ship getting wrecked and feels himself helpless to do anything. Finally, he sees George Washington watching the defeat and death of the soldiers with tears in his eyes and a pallor in his cheeks and later on kissing good bye and shaking hands with the officers.

      The sixth section is an intercalated episode of an American Indian woman (squaw) who visited his mother and disappeared for good. She wanted some work like bottoming the chairs with the hallow reads of rush. It will baffle the ordinary reader why the poet has introduced the story of the squaw and that of Washington. Perhaps the poet wanted the reader to feel the impact of the loving souls on one another - the loving commander-in-chief and the soldiers who had hero-worship to offer him, and the woman of primitive unsophisticated natural innate beauty and the teenaged girl of cultured parents.

      In the seventh section, the poet speaks of the people of every nationality, of every walk of life, of every temperament, of every physical state of health or sickness and so on. Then the poet comes to the conclusion:

I swear they are averaged now-one is no better than the other
The night and sleep have likened them and restored them
I swear they are all beautiful.

      In the concluding eighth section the poet mentions the bond of spiritual love among all these different sleepers in different postures and kinship with those sleeping beside them whether they are in pairs of one set or other such as the girl and her lover, the father and son, mother and daughter, the boy and the man, the scholar and the teacher, the slave and the master, the insane and the sane, the sickly and the healthy.

      Critical Analysis. The whole poem of The Sleepers can be interpreted as revealing the writer’s inner-most heart’s secret and his belief in the eternal scheme of birth, life growth, decay, death and rebirth. The poet’s exhilaration is caused by his eager expectation of a re-incarnation, a transmigration of the soul in the terrestrial atmosphere after a short-lived sojourn in the heavens of the faithful. This is the philosophical basis for this poem overgrown with umpteen ideas of apparent vulgarity and sensualism of the footpath type.

      The poet comes back for a searching examination of himself. In his imagination, the night becomes his progenitor and mother herself. The day is the material world for the poet and the night is the spiritual world. He apostrophizes his spiritual mother and says that he knows he came well and shall go well:

I will stop only a time with the night, and rise betimes
I will duly pass the day, O my mother and duly return to you.

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