The Changing Shape of "The Sleepers," with special attention to the "Lucifer" passage

Contributors

Brett Barney, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price of The Walt Whitman Archive.
Thanks to Stacey Berry for assistance in assembling these materials.

Example

Whitman's Leaves of Grass was published in several editions with various contents. As a continually revised compilation, it presents a wealth of interrelated mixed-media and mixed-genre materials—manuscripts, notebooks, page proofs and printed pages of both poetry and prose. Encoding the intricate and often messy relationships among these materials offers challenges and opportunities across all of the categories up for discussion concerning digital genetic editions.

Sample

Tracing the development of the poem eventually titled "The Sleepers" involves over 100 images of both handwritten and printed material produced across a 30-year period. The Whitman Archive has developed an extended TEI schema that provides a rudimentary way to link documentary instances together through a shared ID (see http://www.whitmanarchive.org/manuscripts/finding_aids/integrated.html). However, we are interested in the possibility of the TEI's developing mark-up appropriate for designating genetic relationships among individual passages in a range of different objects.

"Poem" (Duke University)

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transcription:

Poem
As in Visions of —— of
     night—
all sorts of fancies running through
     the head

[clipping]

[clipping]

comments:

Notes for a poem about night "visions," possibly related to the untitled 1855 poem that Whitman eventually titled "The Sleepers."

"[Sweet flag]" (Duke University)

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transcription:

    sweet flag
  sweet fern
illuminated face
  clarified
  unpolluted
   flour-corn
    aromatic
   Calamus
    sweet-gum
  bulb
   and melons with
bulbs sweegrateful
   to the hand
    I am a look
  mystic
in a trance
 escalation

 something wild
untamed—[illegible]  —half savage
common things
The sweet Trickle Trickling sap ^that trickles drops flows
 from the end of the
  poli little
 many maple
    tooth of delight
  tooth—prong
  —time
spent spend

bulbous billows
    living bulbs melons wiht polished
     rinds the that soothe
     the hand to touch
     smooth to the press reached
hand
Bulbs of life lilies, polished melons,
reach flavored for the gentlest mildest hand that
   shall reach,

comments:

In this early manuscript, Whitman's lists contain ideas related to both "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers."

"[I am a curse]" (Library of Congress)

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transcription:

I am a Curse:
Sharper than wind serpent's
eyes or wind of the
     ice-fields!

O topple down like Curse!
     topple more heavy than
     death!
I am lurid with rage!

I invoke Revenge to assist
     me—
I

comments:

This fragment is part of a three-page section of Whitman's early notebook, "Talbot Wilson," now in the Library of Congress. This notebook contains what appear to be Whitman's earliest notes toward the 1855 Leaves of Grass, and the relevant three-page section begins "I am a curse." This notebook section seems to be the manuscript progenitor of the Lucifer section of the poem, although there are several other manuscripts where Whitman deals with Lucifer. These other manuscripts—which include "[Religions-Gods]" (Boston Public Library), "[Pictures]" (Yale), and "[Poem Incarnating the Mind]" (Library of Congress)—are relevant to the origins of "The Sleepers," although they do not clearly and directly contribute to it. The "[Poem Incarnating the Mind]" notebook complicates things even further; its cancelled line about Lucifer demonstrates both that "Lucifer" was once part of Whitman's original drafts for the fugitive slave section in "Song of Myself" and that Whitman early on in the writing process was dividing the slave material between "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers."

        

"Efflux of the Soul" (Library of Congress)

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transcription:

The Poet

I think His sight is the
sight of the ?bird and
his scent the instinct of the
? dog   I think ten million
supple ‸-fingered gods are perpetually
employed hiding beauty in
the world — hiding -burying it every-
where in every thing — but and
most of all where in spots that men and
women do not think of
it, and never look — as in
death, and misery poverty and wick-
edness.— Cache ‸after and cache againit they
is,— all over the earth and
in the heavens above,that swathe the earth, and in
the dept waters of the sea.—
Thes They do their workjobs
well; those supple-fingered gods.journeymen divine.

comments:

The second notebook, "No doubt the efflux of the soul," is a longer one (24 leaves) that lays out the philosophical ideas that generate the poem and produces some of the key images in the first section of the poem ("Cache! And Cache again! All over the earth, and in the heavens that swathe the earth, and in the waters of the sea.—They do their jobs well; those journeymen divine. Only from the Poet they can hide nothing and would not if they could"). The key point here is that Whitman was generating different parts of his poem in at least three different notebooks—working out in one notebook the imagery in trial poetic lines, and working out in the other two the main ideas in prose.

"[become a shroud]" (University of Texas at Austin)

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transcription:

[illegible] [illegible] am ^[illegible] become a corpse, shroud; shrouded and buried.
I
have wrapped a man's body body and
     am lie in the coffin with him. it.
¶ It is dark there underground—
It is not evil or pain there—it is the
     absence of all that is good.—
Now it seems to me that any every thing out of
     from under ^just above in the ground ^light above must be
     happy, enough,—
Whoever is not in his coffin, and the
     dark grave, let him reg know
     he has enough.

The retrospective extasy is upon me now my [illegible] [illegible] —spirit
     burns volcanic
The earth receds ashamed before my prophetical crisis.—


comments:

A manuscript containing approximately seven lines, lightly revised, of the poem eventually titled "The Sleepers."

"[I am a curse]" (University of Virginia)

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transcription:

I am black a curse: a black slave negro spoke felt thought thinks me
You You He cannot speak for yourhimself, slavenegro.—I lend you him my own mouth tongue
A black I darted like a snake from hisyour mouth.—


I My eyes are bloodshoot, they look down the river,
A steamboat carries offpaddles away my woman and children.—

Around my neckI am
T The His iIron necklace and the red sores of mythe shoulders
     I do not feelmind,
The hHopple and ball at mythe ancles, ‸and tight cuffs at the wrists doesmust not
     detain me

I ‸will go down the river mywith ‸the sight of my bloodshot eyes,
I will go into the steamboat that paddles ‸off my wifewoman and child

A I do not stop with my woman and children,

I burst down the saloon doors, and crash on
     party of passengers.—


But for them, I sh too should have been on the steambo
I should soon


comments:

An early manuscript draft of the "Lucifer" section of the poem that likely led to the 1855 printed version.

"[Topple down upon him]" (University of Virginia)

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transcription:

CrashTopple down upon him, Curse[illegible]Light!! for ‸you seem to meI am all one lurid Curseoathcurse.

I look downoff the river with my bloodshot eyes, often
I see the steamboat that carries off away my woman.—

Damn him! how he does defile me
This day, or some other, I will have him and the like of him to curse thedo my will upon.
They shall not hide themselveslie at peace even in their graves tombswith pennies on their eyes,
I will break the lifds off their coffins but what
     willwould I will have then
I will tear their flesh out from under the
     grave-clothes

I will not listen—I will not spare—I will
     am justified of myself:
The I will pursue fFor a millionhundred yearsI will pursue those who
     have injured me so much.
Though they coverhide themselves withunder the lappets
     of God I will drag them thencepursue them there:
I will stop thedrag them out—the sweet marches of heaven ‸shall be stopped with
     my maledictions.—

comments:

An early manuscript draft of the "Lucifer" section of the poem that likely lead to the 1855 printed version.

"[Black Lucifer was not dead]" (University of Virginia)

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transcription:

I am a hell-name and a Curse:          Sleepchasers.
The Black Lucifer was not dead;
Or if he was, I am his sorrowful, terrible heir:
I am Apollyon,I am the God of Revolt—deathless sorrowful vast, scorner of thosehimwhoever who rulesoppresses me,
I will either destroy themhim or theyhe shall release me.

Damn him! how he does defile me!
He hHopplesr of his own sons: he breedser of children and sellstradesr them
He treats politicianssSellsing his daughters and the breast that he fed his young [illegible], and ‸so buys a nomination to ‸great office;
He iInformedr against my brother and sister and gottooaking pay for their blood,blood, hearts;
HeHe lLaughed when I looked ‸from my iron necklace, after the steamboat that
     carried away my woman.—

comments:

An early manuscript draft of the "Lucifer" section of the poem closest to the 1855 printed version.

from Leaves of Grass (1855)

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The parent of the 1856 version is the untitled version that appeared in the 1855 Leaves of Grass.

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From To Walt Whitman, America:

By the time of the first edition of Leaves he had lessened the emphasis on physical pain and chosen to create not a pitiable but a powerful individual, an heir of Lucifer, the arch rebel:

     Now Lucifer was not dead . . . . or if he was I am his sorrowful terrible
          heir;
     I have been wronged . . . . I am oppressed . . . . I hate him that
          oppresses me,
     I will either destroy him, or he shall release me.

     Damn him! how he does defile me,
     How he informs against my brother and sister and takes pay for their
          blood,
     How he laughs when I look down the bend after the steamboat that
          carries away my woman.

     Now the vast dusk bulk that is the whale's bulk . . . . it seems mine,
     Warily, sportsman! though I lie so sleepy and sluggish, my tap is
          death.

from Leaves of Grass (1856)

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The parent of the 1860 version is the version in the 1856 Leaves of Grass, called "Night Poem."

from Leaves of Grass (1860)

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The parent of the 1867 printed version is the printed version in the 1860 Leaves of Grass, entitled "Sleep-Chasings," and Whitman's working version of the 1860 edition known as the "Blue Book" (New York Public Library).

from Leaves of Grass (1867)

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The parent of the 1871 printed version is the version in the 1867 Leaves of Grass, entitled "Sleep-Chasings."

from Leaves of Grass (1871-72)

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In the 1871 edition, "The Sleepers" appears in a small group of poems; it is preceded by "The City Dead House," "A Farm-Picture," "Carol of Occupations," and "Thoughts," and followed by "Carol of Words" and "Ah Poverties, Wincings and Sulky Retreats." But in the 1881 edition, "The Sleepers" appears in a very different group of poems, preceded by "Proud Music of the Storm," "Passage to India," and "Prayer of Columbus," and followed by "Transpositions" and "To Think of Time." I think the 1871 grouping encourages us to read the poem in the context of severe doubts and social questioning, while the 1881 grouping sets a more transcendental and triumphal context for reading the poem. This is all to say that Whitman's revisions often involve the juggling of poems as well as the rewriting of them, the creation of new clusters of poems as well as internal changes in each poem.

proof page of "The Sleepers" from the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass (Library of Congress)

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If we follow all of Whitman's manuscript instructions on this printed 1871 "The Sleepers," we arrive at the 1881 "The Sleepers," but the corrected printed copy of "The Sleepers" (1871) allows us to track the decisions Whitman was making, including changes he considered but then decided against (like his initial cancellation of what became Section 5 of the poem, about Washington after "the defeat at Brooklyn"). Whitman's marked-up copy of "The Sleepers" (1871), then, is a mixed manuscript/printed version that allows us to track the process of revision between the 1871 and 1881 versions of the poem.

from Leaves of Grass (1881-82)

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The ultimate 'descendant' is "The Sleepers" as it appears in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. All subsequent reprintings of the poem overseen by Whitman are identical to this one and are printed from the same plates. "The Sleepers" (1881) is the final progeny of what was approximately a thirty-year process of invention, composition and revision.

Comments and Suggestions:

Please direct comments or questions to Brett Barney or Kenneth M. Price.


Comments?

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