On Walt Whitman’s “The Sleepers”

What follows is excerpted from a lecture I gave at Paine Hall, Harvard University on March 12, 2015. In the process of composing my opera Crossing, I examined what might have led the poet Walt Whitman to make the extraordinary decision to spend years of his life volunteering in Civil War hospitals. I found premonitions of this decision in his poem “The Sleepers.”

There is no truer image in Whitman for the self-contradictory sensations of joy and pain, of gaiety and pathos, of the oneness of the world and the aloneness of the self, than the opening of “The Sleepers.” Here, the poet is the one wakeful presence in a sleeping world, “bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers.” This is the essence of Whitman’s perspective. Others are at rest; he is restless. Others sleep together; he wanders alone. In sleep, others are all body and no consciousness; he is all consciousness, a floating eye recording the world from outside:

I wander all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,
Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping.

How solemn they look there, stretch’d and still,
How quiet they breathe, the little children in their cradles.

The wretched features of ennuyés, the white features of corpses, the
livid faces of drunkards, the sick-gray faces of onanists,
The gash’d bodies on battle-fields, the insane in their
strong-door’d rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging
from gates, and the dying emerging from gates,
The night pervades them and infolds them.

The married couple sleep calmly in their bed, he with his palm on
the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the hip of the husband,
The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed,
The men sleep lovingly side by side in theirs,
And the mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt.

The blind sleep, and the deaf and dumb sleep,
The prisoner sleeps well in the prison, the runaway son sleeps,
The murderer that is to be hung next day, how does he sleep?
And the murder’d person, how does he sleep?

The female that loves unrequited sleeps,
And the male that loves unrequited sleeps,
The head of the money-maker that plotted all day sleeps,
And the enraged and treacherous dispositions, all, all sleep.

I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and
the most restless,
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them,
The restless sink in their beds, they fitfully sleep.

Now I pierce the darkness, new beings appear,
The earth recedes from me into the night,
I saw that it was beautiful, and I see that what is not the earth is

The very act of naming the whole spectrum of sleepers – children, soldiers, widows, murderers – quietly emphasizes that the poet seems the only one to whom bodily rest is denied. Whitman juxtaposes a conventional image of earthly calm (“the little children in their cradles”) with ghastly images of suffering and death (“The wretched features of ennuyés,” etc.), and though this seems at first to be a contrast, it’s not: the suffering, the wretched, and the dead all sleep, even as “little children” do. The night pervades even them, enfolds even them. Only the poet is awake, “wandering and confused…lost to myself.”

It is out of that lostness that Whitman turns to the wounded, the suffering, in hopes of helping both others and himself to find peace. In this poem, written in the decade before the Civil War, Whitman first reveals his impulse to react to a crisis of identity by reinventing himself as a healer: “I stand with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering…”. There is in this moment the inauguration of Whitman’s longing to transcend poetry, to forge physical connections with others.

But after this subtle – and surely unconscious – prefiguring of the course his own life would take, Whitman makes a quiet attempt to reconcile himself to his own remoteness. “The earth recedes from me into the night, / I saw that it was beautiful, and I see that what is not the earth is beautiful.” The poet himself is “not the earth,” not one of the sleeping bodies on whom gravity freely acts. He attempts to reconcile himself with absence, of which he himself seems a manifestation: the black air seems as beautiful to him now as the visible world had before.

It is a tenuous resolution, one that the poet quickly finds insufficient. If we consider the past two stanzas as two possible stances towards the poet’s sense of remoteness – self-reinvention or reconciliation – then the next section of the poem offers other possibilities. “I go from bedside to bedside,” he claims. “I sleep close with the other sleepers, each in turn; / I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers, / And I become the other dreamers.” The poet is tempted to live vicariously. Or perhaps… “I am a dance…I am the everlaughing…”. Whitman suddenly fancies himself king of the spirits, an Oberon to a crowd of Pucks: “Well do they do their jobs, these journeymen divine…I reckon I am their boss, and they make me a pet besides.” (As usual, Whitman plays both sides: he seems both Oberon and Puck. He’d want to play the lion, too.)

Then “I am the actor and the actress…the voter…the politician…”…and so forth. Out of this seemingly indiscriminate barrage of possible identities arises one within which Whitman lingers:

I am she who adorn’d herself and folded her hair expectantly,
My truant lover has come, and it is dark.

Double yourself and receive me darkness,
Receive me and my lover too, he will not let me go without him.

I roll myself upon you as upon a bed, I resign myself to the dusk.

He whom I call answers me and takes the place of my lover,
He rises with me silently from the bed.

Darkness, you are gentler than my lover, his flesh was sweaty and panting,
I feel the hot moisture yet that he left me.

My hands are spread forth, I pass them in all directions,
I would sound up the shadowy shore to which you are journeying.

Be careful darkness! already what was it touch’d me?
I thought my lover had gone, else darkness and he are one,
I hear the heart-beat, I follow, I fade away.

O hot-cheek’d and blushing! O foolish hectic!

O for pity’s sake, no one must see me now! my clothes were stolen while I was abed,

Now I am thrust forth, where shall I run? 

Pier that I saw dimly last night, when I look’d from the windows!

Pier out from the main, let me catch myself with you, and stay—I will not chafe you,

I feel ashamed to go naked about the world.

I am curious to know where my feet stand—and what this is flooding me, childhood or manhood—and the hunger that crosses the bridge between.

Whitman here assumes the persona of a woman waiting for her lover, who finally seems to commune with darkness or Night itself. Whitman’s obfuscation here is intentional and illuminating, or rather fruitfully darkening: is it darkness itself, or another human being, that “pervades and enfolds” her? The woman panics when she realizes that perhaps the surrounding darkness is not wholly innocent: “Be careful, darkness…already, what was it touched me? / I thought my lover had gone…” The darkness seems suddenly to have assumed a human form, like Zeus descending into the world to seduce a mortal woman. It is a “which one’s the mockingbird, which one’s the world?” moment. Whitman is both himself and the imagined woman, and he endows her with his own capacity to eroticize encounters with Nature. The best image for the scene is perhaps the erotic dream. The erotic dream is, after all, a literal communion with darkness, an encounter during which darkness assumes the illusory form of the beloved. And the illusory form may precipitate a real sexual experience. As Marianne Moore knew, the imagined form – the poem – might contain, or annunciate, the real.

At the end of the section, Whitman asks – rather like Yeats at the end of “Leda and the Swan,” or James Merrill at the end of “b o d y” – “where my feet stand…and what is this flooding me, childhood or manhood…and the hunger that crosses the bridge between.”

In short – what just happened? Is the poet flooded with innocence or experience? The blank darkness of night or the blank white of semen? And what is the “hunger” that “crosses the bridge” into manhood? Is it a desire for the life-giving substance, sperm, or for night’s obliteration? Can those desires be separated? And does the poetic experience “stand for” the bodily experience of union between man and woman? Or – as is intimated in the woman’s confusion at her own encounter – does sex itself perhaps “stand for,” serve as a conduit for, a deeper communion with darkness itself? To paraphrase Merrill, what does the body “stand for”?

Leaving this question hanging in the air, Whitman moves cinematically into an entirely different scene:

The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking,

Laps life-swelling yolks—laps ear of rose-corn, milky and just ripen’d;

The white teeth stay, and the boss-tooth advances in darkness,

And liquor is spill’d on lips and bosoms by touching glasses, and the best liquor afterward.  



I descend my western course, my sinews are flaccid,

Perfume and youth course through me, and I am their wake.

After the foregoing confused nighttime encounter, this scene is as refreshing as a warm dawn. But Whitman is not a part of it: he is elsewhere, self-depicted as the sun, descending its western course. Elsewhere, Whitman claims he can always “send sun-rise out of me.” It is a vital image, but the sun, though it gives life, is not a living body. It is distant; it does not touch us but sends light forward out of itself; that light reaches us however many generations or hundreds of generations hence. (Whitman expands this perspective in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”)

At this point, Whitman has a mysterious vision:

I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies
of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with
courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes,
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head-foremost on
the rocks.

What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? will you kill him in the prime
of his middle age?

Steady and long he struggles,
He is baffled, bang’d, bruis’d, he holds out while his strength
holds out,
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood, they bear him away,
they roll him, swing him, turn him,
His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is
continually bruis’d on rocks,
Swiftly and ought of sight is borne the brave corpse.

An idealized union of the unconscious and thus total physicality of the sleepers and the restless forward momentum of the seeker (Whitman himself), the swimmer is an imagined embodiment of Whitman’s poetic virility, his impulse to heroism with no discernible object. This swimmer is as new and strange a presence in the poem as the mermaids are at the end of “Prufrock,” and these two sea-creatures do have something in common. But Whitman’s encounter is more mysterious, and more frightening.

First, the swimmer is all body. “His brown hair lies close and even to his head…he strikes out with courageous arms…he urges himself with his legs….I see his white body…I see his undaunted eyes…”. He is a heroic presence, not unlike Whitman’s usual descriptions of young men, with the key difference that this swimmer possesses a mythic, “gigantic” stature.

And unlike Whitman’s usual lazily loving descriptions of beautiful bodies, the scene turns violent. The waves hurl the imagined hero ashore to die on the rocks.

This vision, too, seems to be a dream: the sequence of events possesses a kind of dream logic. I think we’ve all had dreams like it – dreams whose intensity helplessly and unexpectedly heightens, dreams in which an innocent scene suddenly turns dangerous, culminating in a vertiginous sense that the desired thing is slipping away, destroyed, lost forever. Whitman’s is a dream of warning. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. If he were to somehow achieve his desired union of mind and body, of poetic and erotic communions – if he were to live the way he writes – he would die.

A stark warning. Then:

I turn but do not extricate myself.
Confused…a pastreading…another, but with darkness yet.

“I turn.” Whitman swerves in his course. Dream-warned away from “the active life,” he seeks a new mode of access to the physical world. He does not “extricate [himself],” but neither, it seems, does he long to be like the swimmer, the man of action, one of Wallace Stevens’ gargantuan and quasi-comic Übermenschen.

The fragmentary mystery of the second line is worthy of Paul Celan: “Confused…a pastreading…another, but with darkness yet.” Confused, he looks into the dark tea leaves of his own dreams once again, and finds another stark vision of his own helplessness. He witnesses a shipwreck, and…

I cannot aid with my wringing fingers.
I can but rush to the surf and let it drench me and freeze upon me.

I search with the crowd…not one of the company is washed to us alive.

But at this point – and remember that this poem appeared in the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, years before the start of the Civil War:

In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn.

5 .
Now of the older war-days, the defeat at Brooklyn,
Washington stands inside the lines, he stands on the intrench’d
hills amid a crowd of officers.
His face is cold and damp, he cannot repress the weeping drops,
He lifts the glass perpetually to his eyes, the color is blanch’d
from his cheeks,
He sees the slaughter of the southern braves confided to him by
their parents.

The same at last and at last when peace is declared,
He stands in the room of the old tavern, the well-belov’d soldiers
all pass through,
The officers speechless and slow draw near in their turns,
The chief encircles their necks with his arm and kisses them on the cheek,
He kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another, he shakes hands
and bids good-by to the army.

Whitman hopefully and audaciously identifies with Washington, who, as commander-in-chief, eventually stood back from the fighting, but maintained total commitment to and sympathy for his troops. (Only Whitman, surely, would make hugging and kissing the focal point of a description of George Washington.) Whitman is seeking a new perspective: neither soldier nor poet but healer, leader, comforter-in-chief.

Whitman’s “turn,” as he calls it, was away from each of the two extremes: the active life of the soldier (or swimmer) and the entirely artistic life of the aesthete. Throughout the Civil War, Whitman would live out the vision that came upon him – it seems involuntarily – a decade earlier, in his sleepless dreaming.