The poem that would become "The Sleeper" went through many revised versions. First, in the 1831 collection Poems of Edgar A. Poe, it appeared with 74 lines as "Irene." It was 60 lines when it was printed in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier on May 22, 1841. Poe considered it one of his best compositions, according to a note he sent to fellow author James Russell Lowell in 1844. Like many of Poe's works, the poem focuses on the death of a beautiful woman, a death which the mourning narrator struggles to deal with while considering the nature of death and life. Some lines seem to echo the poem "Christabel" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet known to have had a heavy influence on Poe's poetry.
Poe praised "The Sleeper" as a "superior" poem. He wrote to an admirer: "In the higher qualities of poetry, it is better than 'The Raven'—but there is not one man in a million who could be brought to agree with me in this opinion."