The Man with Night Sweats Analysis

Thom Gunn

Critical Analysis

Years ago, when Thom Gunn studied under Yvor Winters and J. V. Cunningham at Stanford, he acknowledged his allegiance to the antimodernist and classic sensibility of these masters by praising Winters: “You keep both Rule and Energy in view,/ Much power in each, most in the balanced two.” In this collection, his tenth volume of poems, there is a short elegy for Cunningham, titled “JVC,” that reiterates Gunn’s respect for the control and poise he admires in both poets but also voices a restrained but clear praise for the intensity of feeling that Cunningham managed to bring to heel in his chiseled and precise verses:

He concentrated, as he ought,
On fitting language to his thought
And getting all the rhymes correct,
Thus exercising intellect
In such a space, in such a fashion,
He concentrated into passion.

The story of Gunn’s poetic development is essentially traced in that subtle movement from a severe to a lightly mitigated classicism; from the authority that comes from high standards and traditional norms to a stance no less classical but humanized by compassion. His life in San Francisco gradually weaned him from the conservative prosody and impersonality of his involvement with the “movement,” a school of poetry active in England in the 1950’s. He has, however, never lost his dedication to craft nor allowed his sympathy with the homosexual mythography of San Francisco to distract him with its favorite idioms of free verse and strident voice. Despite an occasional dip into more supple syllabics and verse forms, Gunn remains metrically correct.

In this collection of often-heartbreaking poems about young men shadowboxing with a disease that consumes them with lingering cruelty, Gunn has discovered a “passion” into which to “concentrate” his own powers of poetic statement. Like Cunningham, he is now a poet of great intensity and severely disciplined craft. The skepticism of his previous poetry, which suited the impersonality and abstraction of his classically balanced lines and sounds, here gives way to lament and elegy, lyrical meditation and, most of all, a form of metaphysical rage. That rage, fired and cooled in those precisely tooled and balanced lines of his, enables Gunn, at times to strike a tragic chord. Sophocles and Shakespeare, Oedipius at Colonus and Lear on the heath, hover over the following lines from “Terminal,” describing a man dying of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) as his devoted lover helps him descend a flight of stairs:

The eight years difference in age seems now
Disparity so wide between the two
That when I see the man who armoured stood
Resistant to all help however good
Now helped through day itself, eased into chairs,
Or else led step by step down the long stairs
With firm and gentle guidance by his friend,
Who loves him, through each effort to descend,
Each wavering, each attempt made to complete
An arc of movement and bring down the feet
As if with that spare strength he used to enjoy,
I think of Oedipus, old, led by a boy.

Gunn certainly is a tragic observer of the AIDS plague, but he is also so deeply identified with the suffering of his community that his dreams are haunted by it. He writes in “The Reassurance,” “You came back in a dream./ I’m all right now you said.” His witnessing of the suffering, as illustrated in “Still Life,” can take on a Goya-like ferocity, as if “seeing” as accurately as possible could provide some kind of mysterious defense:

I shall not soon forget
… … … …
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed, …

Finally, however, there is no defense, and the poet must accompany the “bag of ash” that constitutes the remains of the AIDS victim to its unstable resting place (“Scattered on a coastal ridge”), where a greater diffusion in nature and time suggests that even death cannot separate the mourner from the world he and the victim share:

May you lastly reach the shore,
Joining tide without...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)

Forms and Devices

Despite the contemporary and even controversial concerns to which he turns his attention, Gunn has always been something of a formalist in an age in which free verse abounds. He frequently employs long-established forms of verse as well as traditional patterns of meter and rhyme, achieving, through the juxtaposition of avant-garde subject matter and classical forms, an effectively startling tone. In “The Man with Night Sweats,” he alternates four quatrains with four couplets to produce a unique pattern of juxtaposition. This pattern represents a combination of traditional form and innovative alterations by the poet. The lines of both the quatrains and the couplets are iambic trimeter with several effective variations in the beats.

The rhyme scheme in the quatrains is abab; in the couplets it is aa. Many of the rhymes are full (“heat” and “sheet,” “trust” and “robust,” “in” and “skin”), although Gunn also employs slant rhymes, as in the third quatrain when he links “sorry” and “hurry,” in the fourth quatrain in which he links “am” and “from,” and in the concluding couplet, where “enough” is rhymed with “off.”

The imagery of the poem centers on the sheets made wet by the night sweat and on the flesh of the speaker, which was once invulnerable but now suffers the effects of the illness. He can change the wet sheets, but he is unable to alter the condition that produced them. Among the metaphors is his comparison of his skin to a shield that once protected him but now has been pierced, resulting in flesh that is “reduced and wrecked.” The “skin” is also clearly an allusion to and a metaphor for a condom, whose breaking may have resulted in the disease. In addition, the sheet might be considered, metaphorically, a kind of skin that was once dry and protective but now makes the speaker cold. The “dreams of heat” from which the persona awakens are a metaphor for the sexual passions of the past, experiences that he enjoyed and through which he “prospered” but which have now become emblematic of his physical decline. He compares the further physical deterioration that awaits him to an “avalanche” that he is not strong enough to stave off.