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Lament Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Lament” is a descriptive and narrative poem. It traces the stages of AIDS upon a nameless victim, recording the mental and physical changes in that person. The poem is written in a loose iambic pentameter, and uses rhyming couplets. The couplets do not call attention to themselves, since they are rarely end-stopped. Only by rereading the poem can one become aware of its hidden craft.

The first line announces the subject: “Your dying was a difficult enterprise.” In the early stages, the sufferer is primarily concerned with “petty things.” There is little change in the character of the infected one. He retains “hope” and is “courteous still.” The pain soon brings “nightmare” and an unaccustomed “outrage” to the afflicted one. The “outrage” comes from being excluded from the rituals of ordinary life. He cannot feel “summer on the skin.” Instead, he is imprisoned in the “Canada of a hospital room.” Gunn has described the change in images of distance that perfectly capture the nature of the alteration.

The “distance” that the disease brings becomes more apparent as he becomes “thin”; however, while his body is decaying, his mind remains active and alert. He writes messages to his friends and is reconciled with his “grey father” after four years of alienation. Gunn then attempts to define the character of the victim, to sum up his essence. He describes him as he was in the past when he displayed wit and humor. “I was so tickled by your mind’s light touch/ I couldn’t sleep, you made me laugh too much.” The images of “lightness” and “laughter” that define the person’s essence are effective contrasts with his later state.

The AIDS sufferer must now confront death. He does this simply but heroically, “equably, without complaint,/ unwhimpering.” He also retains a “lack of self-love” that kept him from worldly success but endeared him to his friends. He does not accept the death that has come upon him. As a result, there is something “uncompleted” about him.

The final stage is the collapse of the body; machines take over, and he drowns in his own “fluids.” The death is rendered memorably and simply by Gunn: “And so you slept, and died, your skin gone grey,/ Achieving your completeness, in a way.” “Completeness” is defined as enduring the inevitable death; it is, therefore, an accomplishment and not a defeat. In the last section of the poem, the speaker assesses his feelings about the person and the event. He speaks about the body of the victim, who did not feel that it was attractive, which finally betrayed him. Gunn describes the AIDS virus as a “guest,” a metaphor which suggests an intimate relation between the victim and the disease.

The last line of the poem completes the “enterprise”...

(The entire section is 671 words.)