What Is the Theme of the Poem for "The Sleepwalkers"?
Edward Hirsch, born in 1950, is an American poet and president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York City. This poem gives the title to his first volume of poetry, “For the Sleepwalkers,” published in 1981 and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. According M. H. Abrams, the theme of a poem -- whether implicit or explicit -- is the “general concept or doctrine," which is incorporated in the poem and is meant to persuade the reader.
In the eighth stanza, Hirsch’s poem seems to give an explicit assertion as to what its theme is: “We have to learn to trust our hearts like that. We have to learn the desperate faith of sleepwalkers.” You might think that because the poet chooses to tell you the theme, you have finished your work deciphering. However, you can’t be too hasty; often a poet directly states a surface element of the theme in order to undermine it within the poem’s subtext, what’s going on in the background of the poem, which the poet expects the reader to infer.
There are many ways to undermine a theme in poetry. For example, the use of humor might lead the reader to take the theme -- the importance of blind faith -- less seriously. Stanza 1 of the poem begins with the speaker’s desire to give appreciation to the sleepwalkers “who have so much faith in their legs.” By splitting this sentence between two lines, Hirsch uses hyperbole through the likening of the sleepwalker’s faith to the “faith in the invisible.” This is an overstatement because having “faith in the invisible” is often used in religion to describe the choice to believe in God. The reality is that sleepwalking is a physiological phenomenon, and that no one chooses to sleepwalk.
Metaphor, Diction, Allusion
Hirsch uses various rhetorical techniques again capitalizing on their potential to create humor. In stanza 2, the speaker describes things that the sleepwalker has faith in, such as the “arrow carved into the carpet.” The speaker is using metaphor when he talks about the arrow in the carpet because there obviously isn’t one. Hirsch may be alluding to biblical or religious sentiment through the words he chooses to use. The arrow is “etched” into the carpet, as though the guiding arrow were carved into stone, as were the Ten Commandments.
The sleepwalker is also protected from “the worn path / that leads to the stairs instead of the window, / and the gaping doorway instead of the seamless mirror.” He also uses ellipsis, and creates humor by letting the reader fill in what may or may not befall the sleepwalker, that is, a fall out the window or walking into a mirror. Although these actions may not seem funny in reality, you might want to keep in mind that slapstick or physical humor makes up a large part of what makes us laugh. Note also Hirsch’s continued use of exaggeration through diction: The doorway is not simply “open” as doors typically are, but rather is “gaping” like a chasm.
In stanza 4 Hirsch uses simile -- “like blind men” -- to allude to the common idea that the blind are the only ones who can truly see. Of course, “see” is used in a double sense; the commonplace idea refers to the “seeing” that is done with the spirit or soul, that is, what is beyond -- and more important than -- the physical world. The poem strongly implies that sleepwalkers -- regardless of whoever they may be -- are universally wise. This, again, ties back into the hyperbole that makes you suspect the possibility that rather than making such a daring and illogical statement, Hirsch may instead be playing with the reader. There is more than enough evidence for you to question the sincerity of the surface theme that we should have blind faith in our hearts. Perhaps, the theme is rather something more subtle, for example, “Why should faith necessarily be blind?” Keep in mind that a poem will rarely have just one simple theme.
Based in Montreal, Emily Valentine has been editing academic papers and writing short stories since 2001. She is a contributing writer to Synonym.com, and various other websites. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Toronto. Her specialties include writing fiction and nonfiction, and the history of the English language.