In titling his 1957 poem “Human Condition,” Thom Gunn directs the reader to one of the biggest questions posed. The search for the human condition -- the thing that encompasses all the thoughts, actions and experiences of our lives as human beings -- is the search for the answer to the fundamental question of what makes us human. Like the answer to this “big question,” this poem is enshrouded in fog, and its meaning is made deliberately obscure. These are some questions to keep in mind while reading this poem: Does Gunn give an answer about what makes us human? If so, on what authority? What is the point of pursuing such a seemingly impossible task?
The first sentence of the poem, “Now it is fog,” begs questions from the reader: To what does the word “it” refer? What is fog? Gunn does not seem to provide any answers. However, the importance placed on “fog” -- placed at the beginning of the poem -- and the mystery surrounding it -- as part of an unanswered question -- are good indications that finding out what fog is, is going to help you decipher the meaning of the poem. The choice to make the word “fog” important is ironically fitting: Fog itself is the one thing that obscures clarity.
In Stanza 2, the lamps, which are supposed to light the way through the fog, “drop no light on the ground,” but rather “press beams painfully/In a yard of fog around.” Here, Gunn’s word choice -- or diction -- serves well to highlight the mood or atmosphere of the poem. For example, while the use of “drop” and “press,” in this context, essentially mean the same thing, the lamps give off light. However, the words have very different connotations. To "drop" light could be read as a gesture of divine benevolence, but instead Gunn insists that the light is “pressed” -- a much more aggressive action which sets a potentially menacing mood.
An overt figure of speech that Gunn employs in this poem is paradox: “I am condemned to be/An individual.” It is his choice to use the word “condemned”-- such as a prisoner is -- that completes the paradox. A paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement: Individualism, at least in the West, is typically seen as a good thing. However, in Gunn’s poem, to be an individual presumably free to make his own choices is a negative thing. The burden of being human is that we are condemned to be responsible for the choices that we make.
Mind and Universe
In Stanzas 3 and 4, Gunn appears to establish a human’s relationship to the universe. Throughout the poem he has contrasted the immaterial -- the mind, its thoughts and the spiritual; with the material -- the body, its sensations and the physical universe. In Stanza 3 you can see that he does so to establish the place of a human being: “In the established border/There balances a mere/Pinpoint of consciousness.” He seems to be saying that an individual human lies in an insignificant space -- a pinpoint -- and is neither entirely material nor immaterial, but rather both. In Stanza 4 Gunn seems to state one of a human being’s missions: “Particular, I must/Find out the limitation/Of mind and universe.” That is his mission: to find where one ends and the other begins, so he can place himself.
In Stanza 5, there is the poem’s first direct and explicit reference to the human condition: “And thus I keep my guard/On that which makes me man.” You could argue that the question implied at the beginning of the poem, “Now it is fog,” can be completed by the phrase, “what makes me man.” The fog itself makes the poet human. This interpretation is strengthened if we see the first line as a definition -- rather than an implied question -- of the title of the poem itself, “Human Condition.” In the last stanza, the reader learns that much is -- like the effect of a heavy fog -- obscured and “unknowable.”