In ‘The Man with Night Sweats,’ Thomas Gunn uses a first-person perceptive to explore the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. This allows him to take a very intimate perspective. The first-person speaker represents all those Gunn lost to the disease in the 80s before the public was fully aware of what was going on. Thousands died, heart-wrenchingly affecting the gay community for decades to come. Gunn was spared from the disease, passing away in 2004, but throughout his life, he continued to consider death and what it meant that he was the one to live to old age. This poem is only one of several he wrote on the topic.
Explore Night Sweats
In the first lines of ‘The Man with Night Sweats,’ the speaker begins by describing waking up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat and knowing that he has to get up and change the sheets. He does so but then pauses, trying to comfort himself for a few moments before the pain moves through his body again. Without stating it explicitly, the speaker alludes to the fact that he’s suffering from AIDS.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ the poet exposes themes of illness, death, and solitude. In this piece, the first-person speaker provides the reader with an intimate look into a few moments in their life while they suffer from AIDS. Their solitude and illness penetrate through each line of the poem as the speaker attempts to comfort himself and fight off the pain with his bare hands. Throughout these moments, there is no one there with him, no one to comfort him or help him wash the sweat-soaked sheets. Death is an obvious feature of this poem, even though it’s never mentioned.
Structure and Form
‘The Man with Night Sweats’ by Thom Gunn is an eight-stanza poem that is separated into stanzas of either two lines, known as couplets, or four lines, known as quatrains. The couplets and quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CC that remains consistent throughout the poem. The very structured rhyme scheme provides an interesting contrast with the illness the speaker is suffering from. His illness is completely out of his control, but his words are not.
Gunn makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Man with Night Sweats.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesurae, and allusion. The latter is one of the most important literary devices in ‘The Man with Night Sweats.’ Although it does not say so, the poet alludes through context clues to the fact that his main character, the first-person narrator, has AIDs. Without this context, the poem loses a great deal of its meaning.
Enjambment is a common formal technique that’s concerned with the transitions between lines and whether or not a poet ends a line at the same point that a sentence or phrase ends. Or if they cut a phrase off before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the third stanza.
There are also a few examples of caesurae in ‘The Man with the Night Sweats.’ For instance, line two of the second stanza reads: “Where it was gashed, it healed.” Or, line four of the first stanza, which reads “Sweat, and a clinging sheet.”
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I wake up cold, I who
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by utilizing his first-person perceptive in order to tell the reader that he “woke up cold.” This is immediately juxtaposed against the “dreams of heat” that he’d been involved in. Although he doesn’t elaborate on what exactly this means, he does explain that he was sweating. He notes the residue of that sweat, making the sheet cling to his body. It’s also clear in these first lines that this is not the only time this has happened to this man. It’s not one time he woke up sweating. It’s something that’s been going on for a while.
My flesh was its own shield:Where it was gashed, it healed.
The second stanza is a couplet, meaning that it’s only two lines long. In the past, his flesh “was its own shield.” When he was cut, he was “healed.” Readers should take note of the fact that the speaker says “was” in these lines. This is not the case now, or at least that’s not how the speaker considers his body nowadays. With his illness, this has all changed.
I grew as I explored
The risk that made robust,
The third stanza of the poem looks back farther into the past. He used to use his body to explore. He trusted it and “adored” while taking risks. This made an incredible impact on his life. He was freed in his intimacy, as was the case for many gay men in the 1960s and 70s. This speaker trusted his body and took “risks.” This likely alludes to the fact that he did not practice safe sex. Readers should also take note of the use of alliteration in the last line with “risk” and “robust.”
A world of wonders inEach challenge to the skin.
The fourth stanza is only two lines long. In it, the speaker describes how his intimacy transformed him. Each was a “challenge to the skin,” it helped him learn himself and explore the world more deeply.
I cannot but be sorry
My flesh reduced and wrecked.
The fifth stanza expresses the speaker’s opinion that something went wrong, some “shield was cracked,” and his mind and flesh were “reduced” by the disease. While he may be sorry that he contracted HIV/AIDS, he’s still able to look back on that time in his life and remember the love, happiness, and freedom he experienced. This is immediately juxtaposed against words like “reduced” (used twice in this stanza) and “wrecked.” Things spun out of control quickly.
Stanzas Six and Seven
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
The pains that will go through me,
The couplet explains that the bedsheets are so soaked with sweat that the speaker has to change them. But it’s not something he does right away. The second line of this stanza is enjambed, leading into the seventh. There, the speaker explains that rather than going and changing the sheets right away, he stops and hugs himself. He does this in a subconscious attempt to protect it from harm or shield it from pain.
As if hands were enoughTo hold an avalanche off.
The final two lines of the poem end it emotionally and powerfully. He suggests that his hands moved as though they were “enough / To hold an avalanche off.” The word “if” in these lines reveals to the reader that no matter how close he holds himself, the pain is going to come, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. It’s an “avalanche” of pain, one that isn’t going to end until he loses his life to it.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ should also consider reading ‘Soon’ by Vikram Seth, ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ by John Donne, and ‘Rest’ by Jane Huffman. The latter, ‘Rest,’ is a moving poem about sickness and main, specifically lung disease. The speaker describes the pain she carries around with her on a daily basis. ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ is written from the perspective of a dying man hoping to gain access to heaven. ‘Soon’ is a very similar poem to ‘The Man with Night Sweats.’ It details the thoughts of a man suffering from AIDS who is confronting his impending death.