CRITICAL VIEWS: A GATHERING OF COMMENTARY ON "THE SLEEPERS"
Frederik Schyberg (1951): "'The Sleepers' has a unique positoin as one of Whitman's most remarkable poems, so skillfully executed that we are inclined to place it much later in his poetic evolution. . . . [It makes a] contribution to our understanding of Whitman's erotic psyche. . . . [He explores] the great fellowship of sleep, that is, the expansion and encompassing, the synthesis of all animate things into one. The poet goes from bed to bed and in his vision shares the dreams of all the other dreamers--he actually is all the other dreamers."
Gay Wilson Allen and Charles T. Davis (1955): "Thus 'mother' and 'night' are closely related--something like Emerson's 'Over-Soul,' the vast reservoir of spirit or soul, drops of minute fragments briefly clothed in flesh only to shed the superficial garment to return to the great storehouse of pure spirit. The last ten lines have an unmistakable religious tone. They are at the same time a prayer and a mystical adoration. . . . It is not Nirvana that [Whitman] longs for but continued cycles of life."
Richard Chase (1957): "'The Sleepers' is a poem about the descent of the as yet unformed and unstable ego into the id, its confrontation there of the dark, human tragedy, its emergence to a new, more stable form. . . . Of all Whitman's poems 'The Sleepers' is nearest to a pure stream-of-consciousness method, with its impressive flow of what seem absolutely inevitable archetypal images. This poem is characteristic of Whitman at his best; for where the self is dancing, penetrating the veil of death, confronting exciting emanations from the unconscious, and rebounding into the midst of life, it is always an interesting protagonist."
E. Fred Carlisle (1973): "In 'The Sleepers' Whitman dramatizes a dream vision or psychological journey in which he penetrates a realm of existence--both within himself and in the world--that transcends time and space and finite human limits. . . . Through his dream the poet confronts the chaos and confusion of the mind and the facts of suffering and death. He discovers spirit, as well, and thereby comes to know the possibilities for human life. He possesses all of existence through his vision. . . ."
Gay Wilson Allen (1975): "All modern critics agree that 'The Sleepers' intimately reveals the poet's sex psychology. . . . Actually, both the psychology of eroticism in the subconscious and the philosophy of the 'Over-Soul' seem to be implicit in both the imagery and the symbolism of the poem, which also succeeds esthetically."
Ivan Marki (1976): "In 'The Sleepers,' instead of waking and thus turning away from the night, [the persona] plunges into it. He falls asleep on purpose, so to speak, to avail himself of the freedom of a dream-vision to seek out and confront the source of the horror that the waking self could not possibly look in the face. . . . The central significance of 'The Sleepers' in the first Leaves of Grass is that under the protection of a dream experienced through surrogate identities the self braves in it the menace of those savage, guilt-haunted regions of the mind that he shrank from in panic and terror in ["Song of Myself"] when, enchanted by the 'soul,' he allowed himself to be lured towaards them by the 'grass.'"
Robert K. Martin (1979): "The sexual is revealed by 'The Sleepers' to be the gateway to the visionary experience--literally because ejaculation leads to sleep and thus to dream and metaphorically because it is the realization of the possibility of transcending the self through sexual ecstasy which leads to an acceptance of the world."
Harold Aspiz (1980): "'The Sleepers' is a sustained dream vision in which the persona appears as a clairvoyant sleepwalker whose associate spirit, seemingly liberated from his body, communes without limitation with the spirits of men and women, living and dead. . . . Beginning with section 7 of 'The Sleepers,' however, the sexually and emotionally spent persona regains his electro-spiritual equilibrium and becomes receptive to a new influx of inspiration. In the timeless moment of his mesmeric sleep, he envisions the unity of the past and the future, the healing of his afflicted fellows, and the resolution of his personal doubts. His soul 'comes from its embower'd garden' (a suggestive birth-death image) to behold the perfect bodies and perfect genitalia which will create a flawless human race."
Paul Zweig (1984): "Change, for Whitman, was the raw material of inwardness, as in 'The Sleepers' (a dark twin of 'Song of Myself') and one of the great poems of the 1855 edition. Like Whitman himself, the voice of 'The Sleepers' is restless at night. While others are in bed, he wanders the city peering into windows, seeing even through walls and closed eyes into the interior night of people's minds. . . . Stanza by stanza, the darkness changes: it is a nightmare, a spiritual medicine, a resolver of conflict. As he glides across the nightscape of the city, Whitman's wanderer becomes a kind of Proteus. He is a dervish intoxicated by his dance, a clairvoyant seer. . . . In 'The Sleepers' . . . the way down becomes a way up, as night climbs into dawn, and the release of nightmare purges the dreamer. The dawn approaches, and the night with its guilty lover, its killing ocean, becomes a mother exhaling peace and reconciliation."
David Cavitch (1985): "In 'The Sleepers' [Whitman] seeks in his dreams the most ordinary connections with other beings. Like his special states of transcendent, apocalyptic insight in 'Song of Myself,' dreams break down the limits of time, space, and logic to reveal the power of his sympathy with others. In dreaming we all can make others assume what we assume. Everything can be taken into ourselves; people, remote places, the past or future can be directly felt in the present instant of dreaming. . . . He faces the humiliation, which he acknowledges, that he is afraid of the night; and as he recounts this dream during a night of turmoil, he dispels his fears by identifying some of the causes of his distress."
George B. Hutchinson (1986): "The protagonist performs the functions of a healer and prophet. The first section of the poem indicates his curative intentions and that he is troubled by the suffering of others; the last two sections represent the accomplishment of his curing as well as a religious vision. . . . The poem exemplifies how Whitman came to indicate 'the path between reality and [our] souls' by directly 'communicating' with the spiritual world and manipulating the manifestations of that world. Specifically, 'The Sleepers' dramatizes an ecstatic spiritual descent through which the forces of the underworld are brought into use for healing and the discovery of an expanded context for human life. . . . The narrator is first masculine, then feminine, then masculine again. He is not merely 'omni-sexual'; his identity if fluid. This transformational ability agrees with the sexual equivalences of shamanic experience. . . . The visit of the red squaw in section six invokes longing for indigenous bonds and aboriginal continuity deeper than political identity and schism, and the image of the enslaved demon who will either be released or will destroy his oppressor makes for an interesting premonition of the Civil War."
Kerry Larson (1988): "As the only poem in the 1855 edition which does not begin by calling on its auditors, 'The Sleepers' blankets Whitman's 'you, whoever you are' under the cover of a darkness that 'pervades and enfolds' a phantom audience. Denied the opportunity for address, the poet confronts a still life of inarticulate figures who neither invite nor refuse. . . . Having guided his nation through the enervating ordeal of disconnection and death, Whitman is now prepared, with ritualistic propriety, to preside over a new dispensation, announcing that 'everything in the dim light is beautiful, / The wildest and bloodiest is over and all is peace.' Needless to say, these proclamations of cosmic harmony do little more than bring the drama full circle, and as we overhear Whitman murmuring 'the soul is always beautiful' . . . we may suspect that he has emerged from the world of dreams only to relapse into deeper fantasies. Yet however forced these assurances may be, their insistence nevertheless derives from an urgency that is all the more poignant for being unintended. Curiously, the closer the poem draws toward a vision of restored union, the more tendentious and artificial its structure becomes. . . ."
M. Jimmie Killingsworth (1989): "The boundaries society creates--race, class, gender, creed--are constantly eroded by human sexual nature, as Whitman understands it. The speaker's unbounded sympathy, triggered by sexual desire and communion, destroys the differences between himself and black slaves, women, and the lower classes. . . The ironic deflation of the powerful serves to elevate the powerless, marginal elements of society--the slave, the prostitute--whose political potential . . . is portrayed as physical, sexual excellence. . . . The sympathetic imagination and sexual politics are thus merged. While dreams provide the setting for the realization of this synthesis in ['The Sleepers'], fantasy becomes its medium in ['Song of Myself']. 'Song of Myself' is the complement, the daylight version of 'The Sleepers.'"
Betsy Erkkila (1989): "'The soul is always beautiful, / The universe is duly in order . . . . / The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite . . . . they unite now' . . . Whitman's declaration of faith is a declaration by fiat. His assertion of unity is at odds with his confused and ill-assorted dream vision of a universe in which everything is not in order and diversity does not cohere. His series of assertions and his rhetorical insistence do not resolve the personal and political tensions that have erupted in the poem. In fact, Whitman's metaphoric equation of night and sleep with spiritual regeneration is itself curiously 'ill-assorted' in a poem in which sleep brings not only democratic dreams of an equable and loving order but nightmare visions of separation and loss, guilt and rage, dredged out of his own and the nation's psyche."
Byrne Fone (1992): "'The Sleepers' records a quest and an initiation. Whitman, the hero, the initiate, the savior to be, moves from test to test, passes through the dream world's rigors, and celebrates its rituals. He becomes an initiate into the mysteries of the cult of homoeroticism, passing through the ritual stages of that initiation, recognizing his phallic identity, becoming in fact the phallus itself, and participating finally in an act of homosexual intiation as he takes the sacramental boss tooth into his mouth, drinking from that sacred phallic vessel the best liquor, the seminal milk of power. Thus empowered, he is able to confront the primal fears--loss by death, loss of love, loss of self--and triumph over them. He is finally reborn into a new life, a life made possible by his exploration of the multiple aspects of sexuality. But to take the sacraments of this special cult, he has had to make a choice, and that choice is to reject the 'sweaty and panting' embraces of heterosexual love and submit to the risen god, the Fierce Wrestler, muse and lover."