Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Man with Night Sweats” is a poem about facing one’s inevitable death. In this instance, the individual happens to be suffering from AIDS, but the universality of death and its effect on human beings are, nevertheless, present in the poem. As the speaker remembers the past, when he was full of life and unafraid to take sexual risks, he grieves for the good health that he will never again enjoy and for the fact that he might have been able to prevent the illness that is now racking his body. Another thematic element of the poem centers on this man’s—and any human being’s—helplessness in the face of physical decay.

The subject of death has always been prevalent in poetry of all ages and countries. Often, the contemplation of death is eased by the hope and consolation of eternal life, as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and John Milton’s “Lycidas,” or by the deceased person’s return to and absorption by nature, as in Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” and Percy Shelley’s “Adonais.” There is, however, no such consolation offered in “The Man with Night Sweats,” only grief and a sort of quiet despair for the passion of the past that will not come again, the passion that was responsible for the wasting illness the speaker experiences. While dealing with the same theme—death and its effects on the human consciousness—Dylan Thomas urged a struggle against the impending end to life...

(The entire section is 413 words.)