Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | The Sleepers | Summary

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Summary

Whitman's speaker has a vision of wandering all night viewing the sleeping bodies of various people around America. He sees both the wretched and the peaceful. He comes near to the sleepers and enters their dreams, becoming each one in turn.

He becomes a girl waiting for her lover. He leaves that dream naked and enters the dream of a dead body in the ground. Next he witnesses a swimmer being torn apart by waves and rocks. He turns to see a whole ship sinking and all the souls lost.

He enters the dreams of the past—of President George Washington at war and of his mother recalling a meeting with a Native American woman. He dreams the dreams of various nationalities, of student and teacher, master and slave. When it is morning, he wakes. But he knows he will yield to dreams again.

Analysis

Because of Whitman's preference for beautiful sounds, much of his poetry is euphonic, that is, pleasing to the ear. In "The Sleepers," Whitman creates a mood of fitful unease by shifting between melodic, soothing lines and harsh, cacophonic ones. The cacophony serves to keep the reader awake for his underlying message about sleep, which is that every human, regardless of station in life, must sleep and must also eventually die. Sleep and death are both the great equalizers no one can escape from, meaning that in sleep (and death), humans reach their most democratic ideal. But Whitman's speaker also meticulously catalogs the great diversity of the sleepers and celebrates it. This is his way of encouraging individual expression as a key component of living in a collective society.

The form of the poem similarly suggests democracy. There is no strict hierarchy, just random lists and stories of various sleepers. Whitman's speaker is not passing judgment on anyone. He is both an impartial witness and a faithful chronicler. Also, with the line "I am the actor and the actress," Whitman's speaker illustrates the fluidity of his identity by not sticking to one gender.

In the first two stanzas Whitman contrasts the "confused" state of his wandering soul with the "solemn" and "still" sleepers. He uses a mix of cacophonic sounds (the hard "st" of "stepping" and "stopping") and gerunds ("pausing," "bending," gazing") to create a sense of stuttering movement. This initial confusion hints at the larger tension in Leaves of Grass between the Whitman persona's claim to unity and his repeated rhetorical and thematic withdrawals.

The speaker's confusion soon gives way to empathy and delight because he is able to share the dreams of the sleepers and "become the other dreamers." "I am a dance," he declares, "I am the everlaughing." He is able to enter minds and bodies and experience what it means to be someone else. This gives him the power to understand every human is inherently valuable, and all human struggle gives way to peace.

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