The Man with Night Sweats Poem by Thom Gunn Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Thom Gunn’s poetry “The Man with Night Sweats” eloquently captures the sense of loss and vulnerability. After waking from a warm dream, the speaker discovers that he is cold and perspiring. This startling contrast creates the ideal environment for contemplating the body, its resiliency, and the sadness of its unavoidable aging.

About the Poet 

Renowned British poet Thom Gunn (1929–2004) was well-known for his candid and frequently thought-provoking examination of politics, sexuality, and identity. Having lost a great deal of friends and family to the illness, he was greatly impacted by the AIDS catastrophe. Thom Gunn is a British poet who wrote “The Man with Night Sweats.” It was released in 1992 as a part of his eponymous book, which examined themes of loss, disease, and mortality—especially in light of the AIDS pandemic.


Thom Gunn’s poem “The Man with Night Sweats” has eight stanzas that are divided into couplets, or two lines, and quatrains, or four lines.


Stanza 1

I wake up cold, I who

Prospered through dreams of heat   

Wake to their residue,   

Sweat, and a clinging sheet.

To inform the reader that he “woke up cold,” the speaker uses a first-person perspective at the beginning of the poem’s first verse. This is instantly contrasted with the “dreams of heat” he had experienced previously. He acknowledges that he was perspiring but doesn’t go into detail as to what this means specifically. He observes how the perspiration residue sticks to his body, causing the sheet to stick to him. These opening sentences also make it apparent that this is not the first time this has happened to the man. He never once woke up perspiring. This has been ongoing for some time. 

Stanza 2

My flesh was its own shield:   

Where it was gashed, it healed.

Being a couplet, the second stanza consists of just two lines. His skin “was its own shield” in the old days. He was “healed” when he was cut. The speaker uses the pronoun “was” in these sentences, so readers should be aware of that. This is no longer the case, or at least the speaker no longer views his body in that way. This has all altered because of his condition. 

Stanza 3

I grew as I explored   

The body I could trust   

Even while I adored

The risk that made robust,

The poem’s third stanza takes a closer look at the past. He used to explore with his body. He took chances because he “adored” it and trusted it. His life was profoundly affected by this. Like many homosexual men in the 1960s and 1970s, he was liberated in his intimacy. This speaker took “risks” and trusted his body. This probably suggests that he did not engage in safe sexual behavior. The last line’s use of alliteration with the words “risk” and “robust” should also be noted by readers.

Stanza 4 

A world of wonders in

Each challenge to the skin.

There are just two lines in the fourth stanza. The speaker explains how his intimacy changed him in it. Each was a “challenge to the skin,” which allowed him to go deeper into his exploration of the universe and his own self. 

Stanza 5

I cannot but be sorry

The given shield was cracked,

My mind reduced to hurry,   

My flesh reduced and wrecked.

The speaker believes that something went wrong, that his body and mind were “reduced” by the illness, and that his “shield was cracked” in the fifth line. Even though he may regret getting HIV/AIDS, he can still reflect on that period of his life and recall the freedom, love, and happiness he felt. This is instantly contrasted with phrases like “wrecked” and “reduced,” which appear twice in this stanza. Things immediately got out of hand. 

Stanza 6 and 7

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,

The couplet tells us that the speaker has to replace the bedsheets since they are so drenched in sweat. However, he doesn’t act on it straight immediately. This stanza’s second line is enjambed, and it flows into the seventh. There, the speaker reveals that he stops and gives himself a hug instead of immediately changing the linens. He acts in this way in an unconscious effort to keep it safe or insulated from hurt. 

Stanza 8 

As if hands were enough   

To hold an avalanche off.

The poem comes to an emotional and powerful close with its last two lines. His hands appeared to move as if they were “enough / To hold an avalanche off,” according to his suggestion. The use of the word “if” in these sentences tells the reader that the agony will eventually come and there is nothing he can do to stop it, regardless of how close he keeps himself. It’s a never-ending “avalanche” of suffering that won’t stop until it claims his life.  


Thom Gunn’s poem “The Man with Night Sweats” presents a striking image of facing loss and vulnerability. The speaker, who lived in “dreams of heat,” awakens to the “cold” reality of perspiration and a clinging sheet—remaining from his or her nighttime sweats—near the start of the story, creating a startling contrast. This sudden change in tone prepares the audience for a contemplation of human frailty and resilience. The paragraphs that follow paint a picture of a strong, adventurous history. The speaker’s body used to be a “shield,” growing through adversity and recuperating from wounds. Accepting “risk” encouraged resiliency and exposed “wonders” concealed in the tangible world. The melancholy undertone highlights how harsh the situation is. 

The sixth stanza marks the change. Once impregnable, the shield has now “cracked.” Thoughts are “reduced to hurry,” body is “reduced and wrecked.” This alludes to a medical condition that was potentially fatal at the time the poem was written—AIDS. It’s obvious how afraid and vulnerable the speaker is. The various emotions at play are encapsulated in the closing lines. The speaker’s body protests, even though they acknowledge that changing the bed is a realistic task. Their body is weak and they find themselves holding it in an attempt to protect it from the “pains” that are coming. The last scene, in which they are seen attempting to stop an “avalanche” with their bare hands, highlights how dire their circumstances are and how tragically aware they are of their impending death.

To sum up, “The Man with Night Sweats” is a compelling examination of disease, susceptibility, and how people cope with loss. The poem skillfully conveys the speaker’s journey from former resilience to present fragility through contrasting imagery and symbolism. The struggle to accept one’s physical limitations and the unavoidable passage of time is highlighted in the concluding lyrics, which leave a lasting effect.