“The Sleepers” is one of the poems from the 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass. This is a simple poem, dedicated to exploring an idea of democratic empathy. Structurally this poem is composed of lists and anecdotes loosely arranged. The non-hierarchical nature of the poem reinforces the idea of democracy on which it is based: a list works through juxtaposition and random assemblage, not analysis or evaluation.
This poem explores one of the major principles behind Whitman’s poetry, that of empathy. Whitman makes the assertion here that he can identify so completely with another human being as to dream the same dreams they do. Through sleep, which acts as a leveler or democratizing force (much as death does in other places in Whitman’s poetry), all consciousnesses become equally accessible and equally worthwhile. It is important to notice that while Whitman advocates a democratic equality here he does not wish to destroy the great diversity of persons and experiences: we are not all the same.
The type of empathy Whitman claims to be able to achieve extends so far as to allow him to incorporate others’ anecdotes and past experiences into his own narrative. That things can be vicariously experienced is a powerful concept, for it enables the kind of democratic communion Whitman describes here. Furthermore, it makes possible a kind of understanding between old and young, whites and Indians, masters and slaves. This potential for sympathy can drive democracy still further.
There is something highly erotic about this communion of souls, which comes through very strongly at certain points in this poem. Whitman focuses on a male lover here, and while certainly biographical evidence can account for this it should also be noted as a symbol of ultimate sympathy and communication. For Whitman, who believes that the body is an indispensable part of the soul, sex represents not just physical eroticism but also the highest form of emotional and intellectual discourse.
Such intense communion is not endlessly sustainable, though, and thus Whitman differentiates between this state of poetry-making and the mundane daytime world. Unconsciousness—sleep—stands in for a kind of democratic utopia that is achievable only at ideal moments. In its highest form this is a state of possibility and flux that washes away the misunderstandings of the everyday and replaces them with, to quote Keats, “sleep and poetry.”