This poem had no title in the 1855 edition, and was called "Night Poem" in 1856 and "Sleep-Chasings" in 1860. It was entitled "The Sleepers" in 1871. The changes in the title indicate a progressive change of direction in the meaning of the poem. The dominant symbolism of the poem is implied in the earlier title "Night Poem." Night is a rather common symbol for death; sleep implies death and, at the same time, the release of the soul through death. "Sleep-Chasings" indicate the technique of the poem. The poet identifies himself as merging with other beings and multitudes of beings and thus establishes a spiritual and psychological kinship with them. At first the images and the structure seem to be disorganized, but they have an underlying unity which emerges out of the stream-of-consciousness technique. The symbolism is not quite clear in the earlier sections but becomes more meaningful and explicit in the last two sections, especially in the last ten lines of the poem.
Structurally, this poem appears to be a technical innovation, though the theme seems elusive at first and the structure rather loose. The poet's vision or dream motif is the core of the structure and the apparent lack of organization reflects the quality of the dream itself. Thus the poem's structure, theme, and symbolism are brought into a cohesive and meaningful pattern. The last ten lines are marked by a religious tone and express the idea of reincarnation. The poem grows from a condition of sleep and of sleepers to a state of awakening and of wakers, from the time of night to the time of day. The structure of the poem shows the growth of the poet's consciousness and experience of the inner life.
In section 1, the poet wanders all night "in my vision" and observes the human scene. His state is "confused." He sees all the people sleeping: "the little children in their cradles," the white features of corpses," the "livid faces of drunkards," the new-born emerging from gates, and the dying emerging from gates." Later the poet observes loving sleepers: "the married couple . . . .. the sisters," and the mother with her little child. The blind, the deaf, the prisoners, the unrequited lovers — all are sleeping. The earth seems to recede from the poet as he stands near "the worst-suffering." Then the poet imagines himself in different roles. He becomes other sleepers, and he dreams their dreams. The poet thus gives himself up to the mysteries of the night and the unreal world of dreams. He recounts some of those dreams.
The progression of the first section is akin to the semi-rational, semi-erratic quality of consciousness. The section concerns the poet's identification with various characters who are sleepers in different states of slumber. It is the range and quality of the human scene which is significant. Life is observed from the condition of birth to that of death. Simultaneously, the emotions which affect the sleepers subconsciously become the objects of the poet's identification. The poet becomes one with the night and darkness. Thus he pierces the darkness and observes the beauty of the eternal. This is the poet's mystical vision which penetrates the world of matter and reaches the reality of the spirit. The matter-of-fact world ends and the unreal world of dreams begins. The joy of the merging is similar to the ecstasy of sexual fulfillment. The imagery is vividly physical and sexual and was criticized on that account; consequently, for later editions, the poet modified the text. But the idea of the poet's merging with the night being comparable to the joy of sexual experience remains clear and compelling.
In section 2, the poet, still identifying himself with other dreamers, first assumes the role of an old woman: "It is my face yellow and wrinkled instead of the old woman's." Later he sees a shroud and he becomes a shroud. In the coffin, "it is not evil or pain here, it is blank here." Thus, says the poet, "everything in the light and air ought to be happy/ . . . he has enough."
This section shows more identification of the poet — this time, with objects. He enters a coffin to experience death, and this experience, by contrast, makes him aware of the value of life. All the poet's experiences are facets of his total vision of life.
The poet, in section 3, sees a "beautiful gigantic swimmer" and observes "his white body" and "undaunted eyes." He implores the waves not to kill "the courageous giant . . . in the prime of his middle age." The swimmer struggles hard but is defeated by "the slapping eddies." The corpse swiftly passes out of the poet's sight.
The disorganized dream sequence has now ended, and sections 3 and 4 are both clearly and coherently formed. The images in both sections are drawn from death by the sea and are very meaningfully expressed. In section 3, the poet observes a swimmer. The seashore is a symbol of the gulf that separates life from death. The handsome swimmer is pitted against the sea in an unequal struggle; the triumph of the ocean against man is a recurrent theme in American literature. Man is defeated by the sea; but the sea is also a symbol of the world of the spirit. Thus spiritual reality is realized by man through death.
The poet is deeply involved, in section 4, and therefore unable to "extricate" himself from the experience of death on the seashore. The "razory ice-wind" causes a shipwreck. The poet hears "the burst as she strikes." He rushes to the surf but is unable to help. All he can do is wait until the next morning to "help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn."
As man is the principal object of section 3, the ship is the central image of section 4. The death of the swimmer is paralleled by the wreck of the ship; these two scenes of destruction are the two aspects of the poet's experience of death by the sea. The description and imagery of the shipwreck are effectively presented.
Section 5 recounts a scene of General Washington in Brooklyn "amid a crowd of officers," unable to express his grief over the killing. With the coming of peace, Washington bids good-bye to his soldiers. He stands in a room and the "speechless" officers give him a loving farewell.
Here Whitman is again using the technique of a backward and forward movement in time and space. In this section, a backward movement is conceived in terms of time as the poet recalls General Washington. The poet's vision triumphs over time and space. In evoking the memory of the Founding Fathers, he establishes a link with the past.
Whitman recollects, in section 6, an experience of his mother's "when she was a nearly grown girl" and lived with her parents. An Indian woman visited their homestead in the morning and stayed until mid-afternoon. The "red squaw" was a person of "wonderful beauty and purity" and the poet's mother was delighted by her. She thought of her and watched for her for a long time, but the Indian woman never returned.
This is yet another scene of spiritual love. The bond that united Washington with his soldiers (section 5) was personal and spiritual. The description of the spiritual affinity between the poet's mother and the Indian woman is delicately drawn. It gives all the significant details, is realistic, down-to-earth, and precise. She is an embodiment of primeval purity and beauty. The impression she makes is so deep that the poet's mother thinks of her for a long time afterward. This longing and fondness is similar to a romantic quest.
Sections 5 and 6, the scenes of Washington and of the Indian woman, present a contrast to the scenes of shipwreck and death in sections 3 and 4. Scenes of separation and frustration are followed by those of union and fulfillment.
In section 7, the poet's mood changes again. He has been in "contact of something unseen — an amour of the light and air." The seasons become part of him and his dreams. "Elements merge in the night," people recall their pasts in dreams and imagine themselves to be living in the past again. "The Dutchman voyages home, and the Scotchman . . . voyages home . . . /To every port of England, France, Spain, enter well-fill'd ships." These "immigrants," like "the beautiful lost swimmer," "the red squaw," and all other people are restored to health by sleep — and made equal to each other, too: "one is no better than the other." They are all beautiful. The universe is orderly and everything is in its proper place. They are all different but are united in sleep. "The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite — they unite now."
A notable image of this section is that of light. The poet experiences "an amour of the light and air." The imagery of light suggests the illumination resulting from Whitman's mystical experience. This section also exemplifies Whitman's technique of presenting a series of men and objects in quick progression, illustrative of diversity, but also an initial step to the idea of unity.
Other images are those of return and of beauty. The imagery of men returning to their original homes perhaps suggests the return of the world to its origins, of man to his primeval abode, in a process of spiritual renewal.
Men and women become beautiful in sleep. Beauty, associated with darkness, attains a spiritual quality which is the essential element in the poet's mystical experience here. The beautiful sleepers "flow hand in hand over the whole earth" in section 8. All are linked together in harmony. They become beautiful in the "invigoration" and the "chemistry" of the night. Hearts flow freely into hearts, and barriers are broken. This is the miraculous effect of the night. The poet, too, surrenders himself to the charm of the night. Although he loves "the rich running day," he does not ignore the night. He desires ultimately to return to his "mother," the night.
The poet here hints at the concept of reincarnation. He passes from the night, but he returns to her again. The night is a vast reservoir of spiritual energy, and the poet, on shedding his earthly garments, wishes to join his mother, the vast realm of the spirit, to find fulfillment of his own self.