(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Man with Night Sweats” is one of a series of poems Thom Gunn has written about the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in general and friends of his who either have the disease or have already died of it. The title refers to the night sweats that are one of the symptoms frequently experienced by victims of the disease. This poem is the dramatic monologue of a persona afflicted with AIDS remembering and pondering his past life and the way in which he became ill. In the first stanza, the speaker awakens in the night, sweating; the sheet has become wet and he feels cold even though he has been having erotic and passionate “dreams of heat.” Now, the only residue of these dreams is the night sweat that has left his sheets wet and his body chilled. He rises from the bed to change the sheets, but he is immobilized by the remembrance and contemplation of his past sexual adventures and by a growing sense of helplessness. The second through the fifth stanzas involve his memories of these past experiences, which have resulted in his present condition. The final three stanzas return to the present as he contemplates that condition.

There are two basic tensions in the poem. The primary one is built on the contrast between the strong, masculine flesh of the speaker’s body in the past and its weakened physical state in the present. When he was sexually active, he believed that he could “trust” his body, and he relished the sexual risks he took....

(The entire section is 494 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Man with Night Sweats is a collection of poems whose subject is the way people face death, particularly the way that gay men suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) have courageously fought that disease. Thom Gunn’s book was praised by critics as a landmark, one of the first books of poetry about AIDS. Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988) was one of the first works of prose on this subject.

Born in England, Gunn has lived in San Francisco since 1960. Changing social attitudes and life in a more liberated sexual environment helped Gunn to express his sexual identity. He came out as a gay man in a 1976 book of poems called Jack Straw’s Castle. The example of other gay writers, such as W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Robert Duncan has also given Gunn the courage to write openly about homosexuality in his poetry.

Disliking obscure poetry, Gunn communicates in strong, simple words so that readers can understand his basic meaning on a first reading. The persons with AIDS in his poems work through feelings of fear, grief, rage, self-pity, and defeat in order to retain their courage and hope in the face of this disease. One long poem, “Lament,” is written in heroic couplets emphasizing an AIDS sufferer’s courageous effort to express himself despite the tube that doctors put down his throat, and how terribly difficult it is for him to reconcile himself to an early...

(The entire section is 418 words.)