The Sleepers

The Sleepers

Unless we’re toiling away in an English PhD program, most of us don’t pause in our daily lives to read poetry — to read anything closely, really. We might scrutinize a job offer or rental contract, or devour a Facebook feed. Seldom, however, do we allow ourselves to pause over a verse, to wade into a line of poetry or prose and stop, feeling the chill, or the sting, or the pleasure of a series of words, before moving on.

Every month, “Versing Clio” will feature a poem from the American canon that integrates gender, history, and medicine.

This series is less about figuring out the “meaning” of a poem — of cracking open a poem’s shell to find a juicy moral that might be hiding inside — than about locating and considering moments of interest or ambiguity that might come to bear on our understanding of gender, history, and medicine.

Walt Whitman portrait, ca. 1870. (Frank Pearsall/Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman portrait, ca. 1870. (Frank Pearsall/Library of Congress)

Our first poem is Walt Whitman’s “The Sleepers,” originally published in 1855 in Leaves of Grass and continuously revised until the poet’s death in 1892.

Walt Whitman’s “The Sleepers” is as good an entry point as any into the historical, gendered, and medical faces of American poetry. In its first section, the speaker of the poem wanders through a nighttime world of sleeping people. This private realm, made public only by the speaker’s proclamation of his internal monologue, teems with intimate acts and prying observations. As the speaker “wander[s] all night in [his] vision,” he notices, with exquisite detail, the often-unpleasant physical world of bodies at night. He sees:

[gblockquote]The wretched features of ennuyes, 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.[/gblockquote]

In this single stanza, Whitman invokes birth, death, masturbation, gore, violence, battle, mental illness, and institutionalization. Sleep, like death, Whitman implies, is a great equalizing force: “the night pervades and infolds them” alike, with no regard for virtue or sin. Innocent newborns, angry drunkards, maimed soldiers, and corpses enter the same state of being at night — one that is purely physical, totally vulnerable, and completely undiscriminating.

Interestingly, our contemporary set of topics hasn’t changed much in the nearly century and a half since Whitman, ahead of his time on many social issues, drafted and revised “The Sleeper.” Whitman’s sensual observation of two men who “sleep lovingly side by side” in their bed might still raise some eyebrows. We still debate the rightful social role of the institutions — largely our ever-growing prison system — that serve “the insane in their strong-door’d rooms.” And it’s hard to ignore the succession of “The gash’d bodies on battle-fields” followed by “the insane in their strong door’d rooms,” given our 21st-century crisis of military and veteran trauma, both physical and mental.

George Caleb Bingham, "The County Election," 1852. Oil on canvas. (Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO)
George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1852. Oil on canvas. (Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO)

Ultimately, Whitman’s theme, intimate as it is, speaks to a larger project than a nighttime stroll through America’s bedrooms: the American Dream. In a later stanza of the first section, he writes:

[gblockquote]I am the actor, the actress, the voter, the politician,
The emigrant and the exile, the criminal that stood in the box,
He who has been famous and he who shall be famous after to-day,
The stammerer, the well-form’d person, the wasted or feeble person.[/gblockquote]

In this stanza, and throughout the poem, Whitman paints a picture of democracy within and beyond the bedroom by signaling sleep as an equalizing force. Whitman’s gaze extends over even the most fringe members of society, including emigrants, exiles, and criminals. But sleeping isn’t just for outcasts — sleeping is for everyone! — Whitman seems to exclaim, bringing those most central to the American project (the politician; the actor), into the fold. Those who are successful, those who seek success, and those who have been neglected or have rejected success, are all unequivocally embraced. After all, Whitman implies, everyone goes to bed at night under the same American canopy.

(This poem is in the public domain.)

Leah Reis-Dennis is the co-founder of Verse Video Education, a non-profit educational media production company, and a producer for its flagship project, Poetry in America. She blogs about poetry and women's health for Nursing Clio, and has been involved in reproductive justice organizing since 2007, having worked with Planned Parenthood, EMILY's List, Advocates for Youth, and Harvard Students for Choice. Leah received an AB in History and Literature from Harvard University.