Thom Gunn World Literature Analysis

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Thom Gunn once described himself as a “derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can.” He tried out a number of poetic styles and was influenced by a number of poetic traditions. As a result, his poetry encompassed a very wide range of subjects, and the poems reflected the influence of many important figures in modern poetry. The influence of Yvor Winters led Gunn to read, write about, and to some extent imitate such Renaissance poets as Ben Jonson and Fulke Greville. By the middle of his career, however, he began to read and be influenced by such different poets as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder. The essays he wrote on these poets and the changes in his style clearly show his change in affiliation.

Gunn’s poetic style is unusual in its clarity of diction. His use of classical models and references, especially in the early poems, is clearly a reason for his exactness in choosing words. The influence of Winters may be another factor in Gunn’s unusually clear poems. Winters stressed the poetry of statement, and Gunn seems to have adopted that mode in his poetry.

Nearly all of Gunn’s early poetry was written in traditional meters and very often in traditional stanzaic forms. The meter of most of his early poems is the most traditional of all meters in English, iambic pentameter. A few poems are written in iambic tetrameter and even fewer in iambic trimeter, but Gunn tended to stick to pentameter, which he polished and refined. Gunn also consistently used rhyme in his poems, especially alternating rhyme, and occasionally, as in “Moly,” he used the heroic couplet.

Gunn was impressed by T. S. Eliot’s dictum that a poet does not express his personality but escapes from it. As a result, many of his poems have invented speakers, such as the warrior from the Trojan War in “The Wound” or the motorcycle riders in The Sense of Movement. It is only in The Man with Night Sweats that he speaks in his own voice.

The themes of Gunn’s poems are various, but in the early poems the major focus is on the will. This theme can be seen in the warrior of “The Wound” and the soldier of “Incident upon a Journey,” who has “no regrets” about his violent actions. The exercise of the will can be seen as a mode of life in “On the Move” and “Innocence.” In “On the Move” the motorcyclists “dare a future” by their movement. Whether there is any meaning in their actions is not dealt with; it is the keeping in motion, a metaphor for the will, that matters. In “Innocence” the soldier has made himself or been made into an “instrument.” Military allusions and metaphors are common in Gunn’s poetry, even in a love poem, such as “The Beach Head,” where the stages of seduction are described as an invasion. Another love poem, “Carnal Knowledge,” portrays the act of love as one of shared deception rather than union. It is interesting that Gunn wrote few poems on the two eternal subjects of English poetry, nature and love. He was a traditional poet, but he avoided nearly all the traditional subjects of poetry.

Along with will and its accompanying violence, Gunn focused on choice. He read the works of Jean-Paul Sartre while he was a student, and many of the French philosopher’s ideas can be found in Gunn’s poetry. “Vox Humana” is a good example of his writing on the theme of choice. The speaker in this poem feels urged on by some...

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force within him to choose what will become the pattern of his life. Without choice, life and existence remain a “blur,” but with choice comes a fixed design that is often destructive.

The focus on will and action led Gunn to write poems about such unlikely figures as Elvis Presley and Claus von Stauffenberg. Presley turns “revolt into style.” Whether he merely adopts a pose or not does not matter; he becomes an icon who leads others to liberation. Presley is similar to one of the motorcycle riders of The Sense of Movement, but von Stauffenberg is a more conventional heroic personage. He was the leader of the plot to kill Hitler and died in great pain for that act. He is “honor personified,” although he exists in a time when “honor cannot grow.”

Another interesting theme in Gunn’s poetry is the city. He celebrated the city with sexual metaphors and wrote few poems dealing with nature. The city solicits the speakers in his poems and holds them in an embrace. In “The Map of the City,” he describes the city above all as a place of “chances” and “endless potentiality”; it is a place where liberation is possible.

In Moly, Gunn stresses the liberating elements of the LSD experience, since it can take one beyond the agony of choice and the will. “Rites of Passage” shows something of the change LSD brings to the speaker. He has become an animal, specifically a horse, and that transformation brings “completion” rather than regret. Now he can challenge the father who has dominated him. He has become the Oedipal son who is ready to displace the father with his “horns” and send a message to his mother. The change is a liberating one; the speaker is freed from moral inhibition and can come into his own.

In The Man with Night Sweats, Gunn displays a sympathy and feeling for others that had not been prominent in his earlier poetry. He describes the heroism and grace of a group of people who have endured great suffering. Gunn becomes the bard who will record these moments of suffering and courage.

When near your death a friendAsked you what he could do,’Remember me,’ you said.We will remember you.

Gunn has distilled his poetry into naked clarity and feeling.

“On the Move”

First published: 1955 (collected in The Sense of Movement, 1957)

Type of work: Poem

“On the Move” describes and celebrates the “created will,” which is exemplified in the freedom of a California motorcycle gang.

“On the Move” is perhaps Gunn’s best-known poem. It perfectly and sympathetically captures the ethos of motorcycle gangs. The poem opens with images of birds following “instinct” and “some hidden purpose.” They have a secure place, since they are “nested.” This, of course, contrasts them to human nature; people are racked with uncertainty and have only a “baffled sense” because they lack instinct and defined purpose. The poem is the fullest exploration of a theme that has obsessed Gunn from the start of his poetic career.

In contrast to the ordinary person, who remains baffled, the motorcycle gangs “strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—/ And almost hear a meaning in their noise.” They have escaped from the plight of the divided and approach—even if they never reach—the instinct of animals. Gunn describes them as “flies,” metaphorically connecting them to animals. Where they travel is a matter of chance rather than logic or even moral choice. For Gunn, a life that is open to chance, even if it is dangerous or destructive, is preferable to the intellectual paralysis to which modern people are prey.

The motorcycle gang is portrayed, however, as scaring “a flight of birds across the field.” They are antagonists to the birds of the first stanza. The birds must yield to the will. The actions of the motorcycle gangs, even if destructive, are a solution, if only a partial one. They escape “discord” and damnation by moving “always toward, toward.” In continual flux, they avoid the anxiety of thought to which many are prone.

The last stanza resolves the contrasts. The motorcyclists pass through towns on an endless quest. They find a solution in joining “the movement in a valueless world.” They are neither “birds” nor “saints,” however, since both “complete their purposes.” They are, instead, an alternative. By staying in motion, they may reach no “absolute” or completion, but “One is always nearer by not keeping still.” They are precisely between the given purpose of animals and saints and the sense of meaninglessness and lack of definition that people are constantly condemned to experience.

“On the Move” is a philosophical poem. It confronts the condition of humanity in a world without God or values. How in such a world is one to find a direction or purpose? Gunn’s qualified answer is the “willed” action of a band of motorcycle riders who refuse to submit to the anxieties and dislocations of modern life. Gunn discovers freedom in a group of people who have rejected conventional social mores.


First published: 1971 (collected in Moly, 1971)

Type of work: Poem

“Moly” dramatizes the early stages of a man’s transformation from a lower, bestial nature to a higher, spiritual state.

“Moly” is written in heroic couplets that have the incantatory effect of a spell or a charm. The repeated rhymes mirror the subject perfectly. The poem deals with states of transformation, specifically the effects of LSD upon the human brain. Even with such an unusual subject, Gunn uses conventional metrics and an allusion to one of the best-known works in the Western tradition, Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614).

The poem begins with the speaker awaking to find he has been transformed into a beast. He attempts to find out exactly what type of animal he has become: “Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea./ What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me.” He finally recognizes that he is a pig. He has “bristles” and is “snouted.” “She,” presumably Circe, has brought on this unwelcome change, but, other than acknowledging her role, he says nothing more of her.

The speaker recognizes that the only human elements that remain within him are the eyes; other than this he is “buried in swine.” So, human perception is still there, but his mind and soul are bestial. He would “eat a man,” but he is afraid. There is an animal cunning and a predatory fear about him. These animal qualities, however, are not celebrated as they are in other poems. Now they define a lower condition.

The pig-man is rooting, but this is described as seeking his lost humanity rather than acting in piglike fashion. In addition, he prays to the gods to help him find the plant, “moly,” that will restore his humanity. Prayer is, of course, a sign of a yearning for and acknowledgment of a higher state. The “moly” is described in images of coolness, although it has a “black forked root.” Above all, it possesses “magic” in each of its parts.

The view of the animal state as preferable in “On the Move” is reversed in “Moly.” In commenting on the poem, Gunn has said that one may become a pig, but that is not one’s true state. Apparently, Gunn now favors a search for one’s higher, perhaps spiritual, conditions, rather than celebrating one’s animal, instinctual states. The speaker in “Moly” asks for change, a key concept in Gunn’s poetry. The changes brought by the gods and the moly “are all holy.” Gunn’s positive view of change is now focused on spiritual yearning rather than the exercise of the will.

The poem ends with the search for change rather than change itself. “Moly” and “On the Move” share the theme of incompletion. The plant, and LSD, hold out the promise of change, but Gunn does not present it in the poem. It remains a dream and a direction in which one is compelled to go. People cannot be satisfied with a bestial condition; they must seek some higher state.


First published: 1992 (collected in The Man with Night Sweats, 1992)

Type of work: Poem

“Lament” is a detailed description of the effects of the AIDS virus upon a victim.

“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” of the first line. The AIDS victim has completed “This difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.” Dying is an “enterprise,” an adventurous activity. Gunn brings together the stages of the disease in three contrasting adjectives: “difficult, tedious, painful.” Together they sum up the experience.


Thom Gunn Poetry: British Analysis


Gunn, Thom (Contemporary Literary Criticism)