Subject The Man with Night Sweats
Posted by EK
Posted on Sun Mar 26 20:25:48 2000
From IP  

EK Tan
Dr. Kate Liu
Literary Criticism II

The Man with Night Sweats
Thom Gunn

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.

* * * * * * * * * * *
The Structural Awakening of ¡§The Man with Night Sweats¡¨ by Thom Gunn
¡§The Man with Night Sweats¡¨ is a poem of remorse. The speaker, who is probably suffering from Aids, is always disturbed during his sleep by night sweats. He talks about the difference in physical status before and after he contracted the disease and how his hedonistic view leads to his present sufferings. In order to analyze the poem structurally, I will adopt Greimas theory of semantic analysis of sentence structure to exhibit the relation between the structure and the theme of the poem.
The speaker wakes up at night to find himself soaked in sweats, being in a state of helplessness, he still attempts to seek comfort. Apparently the speaker is the object in the first pair of binary opposition and the object is the comfort, which he endeavors to obtain. The immediate comfort the speaker seeks is a clean bed. Only by having his bed changed, his wrecked body can ease off the discomfort of being soaked in sweats. And when he says ¡§Hugging my body to me/ As if to shield it from/ The pains that will go through me,¡¨ his desire for comfort is explicit. Unfortunately, we clearly understand that this object the speaker is searching for does not exist or even if it does it is not ubiquitous.
Ironically, there is a hidden object besides comfort, which the speaker in search of subconsciously. This object refers to the true self of the speaker. After waking from his dream, the speaker finds himself soaked with sweat. He begins to recollect how he treated his body before the misfortune happened. The speaker is over confident of his physique that he ¡§adored/ The risk that made robust.¡¨ ¡§I¡¨ represents the speaker understanding of his own self based on the potential of his physical body, which is also the basis of his self-consciousness. This repetitive use of ¡§I¡¨ exhibits his own subjectivity, which is also the self that celebrates physical body and sex. Unfortunately, the speaker¡¦s trust in his body and indulgence in sex did not protect him from mishap; conversely, from the mishap, he learned his lesson. Thus, the symptoms of Aids, which occurs in the middle of the night not only triggers the speaker¡¦s desire to seek comfort but also to search for his true self, which is not fully physical. The last ¡§I¡¨ appears in the first line of the seventh stanza of the poem. Upon the second line, there is a transition from ¡§I¡¨ to ¡§me.¡¨ The awakening of the speaker begins here. He eventually achieves a new understanding of his own self with me as the subject, which sound humble. His understanding of self is no longer based on physical body because ¡§me¡¨ is separated with his body, which is ¡§it.¡¨
Upon the second pair of the binary opposition, the speaker is the receiver, while his body and night sweats are both the senders in two explicitly different situations. In the former, the body relays an incorrect message that it is robust and can act as a shield to protect him from hurt and danger. The speaker, on the other hand reads the message positively, thus resulting in his own mishap. In the latter, the speaker receives the message that his physical asset is not as what he thought to be indestructible. His night sweats relay this message. This symptom of Aids highlights to the speaker his need to re-establish an understanding of himself. The sender (night sweats) in the latter corrected the miscommunication in the former.
In the last set of the binary opposition, the speaker¡¦s contraction of Aids is also his helper. Without the constant suffering from the Aids symptom, the speaker might not come to realize the truth of his misunderstanding of himself. Conversely, this symptom can also be the hindrance in the last set of binary opposition for it prevents the speaker from obtaining comfort.
In conclusion, the poem intertwined the speaker¡¦s desire to seek comfort and his revelation of a true identity. The ironic element in the poem lies with the fact that the speaker¡¦s initial motive is to console his wrecked body, while the final achievement turns out to be a rewarding establishment of a new self. Though the poem ends with a rather pessimistic tone, the tone can be easily overshadowed by his achievement in knowledge.

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