"The Sleepers" has, at least for the past fifty years, been considered one of Walt Whitman's most haunting and most accomplished poems. It appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass as an untitled poem, the fourth of the twelve poems to appear there. In the 1856 edition of Leaves, Whitman entitled it "Night Poem," and then "Sleep-Chasings" in 1860 and 1867. In the 1871 edition of Leaves, Whitman gave it its final title, "The Sleepers." In the context of the first edition of Leaves, "The Sleepers" offers Whitman's new democratic "I" the chance to slip across many boundaries. The persona of this poem is the most fluid "I" in all of Whitman, crossing gender and race, penetrating walls, invading minds of people around the world.

Whitman plays on the way that sleep dissipates a sharp sense of self-identity. Sleep is a state in which we sense conscious control of our thoughts slipping away, where we experience the weird, sometimes frightening, and often liberating escapes from the more rational forms of our waking lives. Thoughts and images and scenes that we may repress in waking thought are released in the dreaming state of sleep, and habitual dichotomies, moral distinctions, and patterns of discrimination break down as we imagine ourselves in situations that we may be embarrassed to admit when we remember our dreams upon awakening. Whitman expresses this embarrassment in the poem, offering us dream-scenes most of us have experienced in some form--finding ourselves naked in public ("my clothes were stolen while I was abed, / Now I am thrust forth, where shall I run?"), dreaming of our own death ("A shroud I see-and I am the shroud . . . . I wrap a body and lie in the coffin"), experiencing ourselves as someone else ("I am the actor and the actress . . . the voter . . the politician, / The emigrant and the exile . . the criminal that stood in the box"), released from the categories of gender and class that, in our waking lives, define us.

Sleep for Whitman, then, is a democratic condition. Throughout the first edition of Leaves, Whitman seeks those experiences that cross the boundaries of class, gender, and race: all humans live in bodies and apprehend the world through the five senses and breathe the same air. Whitman's emphasis on the body and on sensuality grows out of his belief that such an appeal to physical experience breaks down hierarchies and discriminations among his readers. To represent those experiences that we all share is to create a democratic poetry, a poetry accessible to everyone. Sleep is another of those democratic experiences. Not only do we all sleep, we all know and have felt the "breakdown" of "sleep-chasings," the way that falling asleep gives us the experience of losing control, the ways that dreams allow us to undergo shape-shifting, to wander worlds beyond our waking experiences. Sleep, Whitman indicates in this poem, allows us finally to move into deeper and deeper levels of common psychic territory, where we all descend at night to plumb the depths of human emotion.