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Analysis of the Poem 'The Man With Night Sweats' by Thom Gunn

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn

'The Man With Night Sweats' Analysis

'The Man With Night Sweats' is a short rhyming poem that focuses on the plight of one person, a gay man, who has developed night sweats, a symptom of the killer disease AIDS.

Taken from the book of the same name, published in 1992, the poem is one of 17 elegies written by Gunn as a result of him personally experiencing the loss of several of his best friends.

As Gunn himself says:

I had assumed that I would age with all my friends growing old around me, dying off very gradually one by one. And here was a plague that cut them off so early.

By the mid-1980s, AIDS had killed five of his close friends. Thousands died; the devastation affected the gay community worldwide. The heady days of the 1960s and 70s gave way to pain and suffering and misunderstanding on behalf of society generally.

Thom Gunn found the phenomenon of AIDS hard to ignore. He wrote his poems about sickness and death partly as a tribute and partly as a way of understanding why he should be spared when others succumbed.

From Gunn's poem 'The Missing':

Now as I watch the progress of the plague,

The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin,

And drop away. Bared, is my shape less vague

- Sharply exposed and with a sculpted skin?

Never overtly sentimental the overall tone of the book and this poem is dignified, down to earth and compassionate.

What makes 'The Man With Night Sweats' special is that it is written in the first person so the reader is immediately connected to the affected man as he lies in his bed, sweating.

There is no mention of the disease but the suggestion is that this is the beginning of the end. These are no ordinary night sweats; they are profound because they signal the inevitable decline into weakness and death.

  • Thom Gunn skilfully chooses a tight form into which to pack the speaker's unease and growing tensions. As a balance there are full rhymes which bring closure - and a couplet separate from each quatrain adds to the neatness.

Influences for this poem, as the poet admits, come from Thomas Hardy and the earlier English poet Fulke Greville, who wrote Caelica in 1580, a long poem on themes of religion, politics and love.

Gunn was inspired by the form of Caelica (latin for Heavenly) - short octets, alternately rhyming, ended by a rhyming couplet. He modified the stanzas to produce a lyrical yet poignant poem that starts in the present tense and shifts into the past before smoothing back to the here and now.

'The Man With Night Sweats'

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.

My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.

I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.

I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.

I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead

Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

'The Man With Night Sweats' focuses on an anonymous man who has been infected with the AIDS virus and who is beginning to understand the seriousness of the disease.

Sweating at night is one of the first symptoms of AIDS and this poem neatly sums up an individual's personal reaction to their body's dysfunction.

With skilful use of literary devices - caesurae (pauses in the line) and enjambment (when lines continue into the next without punctuation) - Gunn offers a sensitive insight into the thoughts of this unfortunate man.

Stanza 1

The first-person speaker wakes up in a night sweat, his skin soaked and cold, in complete contrast to the dreams of heat he experienced previously. These dreams refer to sensuality, warmth and fire which gave him his worth but now only produce sweat.

Note the reality - a bed sheet - juxtaposed with the dreams. The full end rhymes give this first stanza a controlled feel, as if the poet is attempting to enclose feeling within strict discipline.

Enjambment of the first two lines gives a little momentum to begin with but then pauses, through punctuation, slow things down again.

Stanza 2

A full rhyming couplet (refrain) is the speaker being certain of himself. He saw his flesh as a shield, that is, he thought he would be protected from harm, from the physical attacks.

Should he be wounded then he would be healed. Note the language - gashed - meaning a large and deep cut. It is phonetically related to flesh and shield.

Stanza 3

Another quatrain, again with enjambment which keeps the flow of meaning on the go, especially when there are no caesurae (pauses) in the lines. This second stanza looks back, the speaker mentioning the trust he had in his body and how he grew as a person through physical exploration.

He admits there was a risk (safe sex not yet considered necessary to avoid AIDS) but he took it because he adored the sensation? And why? Well, that word robust which means strengthened in this context, suggests sensuality was the be-all and end-all.

Stanza 4

A continuation of the previous stanza confirms with full rhyme this physical need as a catalyst for personal growth.

Stanza 5

But now the speaker regrets the fact that something went wrong, with the shield, his flesh, and that his mind was also affected. The slant rhymes suggest things are not in harmony any longer.

Stanza 6

This couplet brings the reader back to the present, and reality. He has to change the sheets they are so soaked. But he's distracted and finds himself sitting upright, shocked perhaps.

Note how this couplet is different from the rest. Enjambment takes the reader into a quatrain, a reversal of the previous pattern.

Stanza 7

The speaker is hugging himself almost subconsciously, his arms a shield (ironically), anticipating the pain to come. This is a moving image - the man's physicality is a symbol of what will inevitably come to pass. There is no-one to hug him now, he has to hug himself.

Stanza 8

And he knows that he will not be able to stem the oncoming symptoms, which will hit him with force. That word avalanche conjures up all sorts of words: an unstoppable force, a surge, a powerful suffocating experience.

  • So this is a controlled and structured poem but there are certain lines enjambed which allow momentum to build here and there. The use of the word avalanche counteracts the form to an extent, for an avalanche is usually out of control.
  • There is no sentimentality expressed. The man isn't a self-pitying person but does admit that he took the risk for sensuality's sake, wanting challenges for his skin - all the feel and touch involved in sexual passion - which he thought he could trust.

What Is The Metre?

'The Man With Night Sweats' follows a loosely iambic trimeter beat, with six syllables per line. Naturally, there are variations - pure iambic with no pauses would produce a plodding monotony - and we'll take a closer look at two of the stanzas:

I wake / up cold, / I who
Prospered / through dreams / of heat
Wake to / their res / idue,
Sweat, and / a cling / ing sheet.

My flesh / was its / own shield:
Where it / was gashed, / it healed.

The trimeter template (three feet) is common to each line, all with six syllables. There are three pure iambic lines, including the couplet, but note the use of punctuation to break the daDUM daDUM daDUM beat which tends to stop and start the poem, reflecting the breath of the man.

So the syntax (the way clauses and punctuation interact) is varied enough to create a challenge for the reader.

Line 1: arguably iambic trimeter, but the stress could be placed on the second I and the word who.

Line 2: first foot is a trochee, with stress on the first syllable, followed by two iambs.

Line 3: an opening trochee, an iamb and the fading pyrrhic of the last foot make this an extra special line of contrasts.

Line 4: a special trochee, with the comma after Sweat for emphasis, and two iambs to end.

Lines 5 and 6: two pure iambic trimeters bind this rhyming couplet tightly together.


100 essential modern poems, Ivan Doe, Joseph Parisi, 2005.

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey