"Young" by Anne Sexton was originally published in her anthology All My Pretty Ones in 1962. It was included in her posthumous Complete Poems. Both works are out of print, but "Young" is widely available on the Internet and in collections such as The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton, published by Mariner Books in 1999.
Sexton is famous as being among the confessional poets of the 1960s, whose works were based on the revelation of the secret truths of their lives. She began to write poetry as part of a program of therapy recommended by her psychiatrist and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her work. She was also granted an honorary Ph.D. and the right to teach poetry at the university level despite her lack of formal education beyond high school. The content of her poetry is deeply influenced by her mental illness (depression) and by the system of symbolic interpretation of dreams developed in psychoanalysis, which she learned in the course of her therapy. It is often difficult for the reader, as it was for Sexton herself, to know where the facts of her life leave off and her poetic creativity begins. "Young" is one of Sexton's early poems in which she explores the sources of her desperation in seemingly ideal circumstances, a problem that plagued her throughout her life and career.
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts.
Her father owned a successful wool producing firm so she was raised in comfortable, upper middle-class circumstances. For a brief time during her adolescence Sexton's great aunt Anna Ladd Dingley, called Nanna, lived with the family and made a tremendous impression on her. After graduating high school, Sexton broke an engagement to elope with Alfred Sexton (known as "Kayo"), who also became a successful businessman. After working as a fashion model while still in high school, she settled into a suburban life as a wife and mother, as was expected of a woman of her time and class. She did not start to write or to undertake any form of higher education until she started undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression. After a brief committal to a mental institution, Sexton began to see the psychiatrist Martin Orne, by whom she was treated from 1955 to 1963. Orne recognized some creative potential in her and advised her to start writing poetry as part of her treatment. She began by taking an adult education course offered at Tufts University. She was lucky to begin her study of poetry with the poet John Holmes, in whose class she met her lifelong friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin, with whom she collaborated to produce several children's books. In 1957, she studied with the important confessional poet Robert Lowell (in whose class she met the poet Sylvia Plath, with whom she had a close working relationship until Plath's death in 1963). She also met the poet W. D. Snodgrass while attending the Antioch Writers' Conference in the same year.
Sexton benefited from the fashion in the 1960s for so-called confessional poetry, as well as from the patronage within this school of her teacher Robert Lowell and her mentor W. D. Snodgrass. Once she started writing, she received almost immediate publication in such prestigious venues as the New Yorker, Harper's magazine, and the Saturday Review. She quickly published two anthologies, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), which dealt directly with her mental health issues, and All My Pretty Ones (1962), which included "Young." Critics warmly embraced confessional poetry, as indicated by the Pulitzer Prizes awarded Lowell in 1947, Snodgrass in 1960, and Sexton herself in 1967, for her anthology Live or Die. Sexton explored themes in her work particular to women's identity and place in society, at a time when these were still rare and startling themes in literature.
As Sexton's reputation grew, she was invited to teach poetry workshops at Boston University, Oberlin College, and Colgate College. She was awarded numerous honorary degrees, including a Ph.D. from Tufts University. She also occasionally led workshops at high schools and in mental institutions. After a life filled with multiple suicide attempts, Sexton killed herself on October 4, 1974, by running her car in her closed garage. Although some have suggested that her suicide was linked to her poetry falling out of favor, her last book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, which was published only a short time before her death, still drew favorable critical attention. Her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, an important poet in her own right, oversaw the publication of her mother's last book, 45 Mercy Street (1975), as well as her letters and her collected poems.
Sexton's "Young" consists of a single sentence extended over twenty-three lines of verse. It takes the form of a reminiscence of a summer evening in the narrator's childhood. It is spoken in the voice of a first-person narrator, but this speaker should not be simply equated with the author herself. Although this voice seems to mediate Sexton's memories and experiences, the reader must not lose sight of the fact that the speaker is a fictive creation of Sexton's and is in no way bound to report the objective reality of Sexton's life.
The narrator ranges over memories of the subjective perception of a particular evening of her youth. She begins by emphasizing a more than natural barrier of time between her present and past. The memories themselves consist of vivid sensory impressions and end with an unresolved questioning of cosmic powers before finally stressing the physical changes of puberty the narrator was experiencing at that time.
The title of the poem, "Young," already suggests that the poem takes place during the narrator's youth, the period between childhood and adulthood. The poem begins by expanding on the time separating youth and adulthood, blowing it up to mythological proportions. It would not be unusual to begin a poem with a phrase such as "a thousand years ago" as hyperbole for "a long time ago," achieving a heightened effect through exaggeration. It would mean ‘in a part of my life that now seems distant and detached from my present.’ Sexton fully suggests that sense of distant time, but what she actually writes instead suggests something more than temporal separation. The passage of time seems to be equated with a series of decisions made, each one of which helped to make the barrier between childhood and adulthood more than did the mere passing of time. Although the text presents a memory, memory itself is called into question since a season is said to last as long as memory lasts. This is a clue that the words being used here are a tool of poetic creativity rather than simple reporting. Perhaps she wishes the reality of time to be different than it is.
The poem describes a typical experience of middle-class American childhood, the summer break from school. The relative wealth of the family involved is suggested by the size and extravagance of their house. The summer break at one time functioned to allow farm children to be freed from school to help with farm work, but for suburban children the break was marked as a time of idle play, whose lack of measured time, in contrast to the rigid calendar of the school year, made it seem endless. This naturally suggests the sort of unreal stretching out of time that seems to exist in the poem.
The narrative voice moves on to a description of what the narrator remembers seeing and feeling. She presents the earth and sky as cosmic powers that are burying her. After this experience she recalls her parents' bedroom windows, particularly the light spilling out of them into the evening darkness. The fact that the narrator's parents have separate bedrooms develops the theme of the family's affluence. But it also might suggest strife within the family, which was in fact the reason Sexton's parents had that arrangement.
More to the point is the contrast between the two parents' windows. On a summer night in Boston the air would still be heavy with the day's heat and humidity. But Sexton transfers these qualities to the light spilling out of the mother's window. The language of the passage suggests something unpleasant, as if the narrator's mother, or her relationship with her mother, is running down a drain.
The other window, the one belonging to her father, is treated quite differently. As a simple matter of fact, a modern reader might expect the windows of the house to be closed to keep in the cool conditioned air. But, assuming a setting for the poem around 1940, when Sexton would have been twelve years old, air conditioning would have been quite rare, regardless of social status, so the unexpected thing is not that the window is only partially closed but that it is not entirely open. Its being closed even halfway is significant and must be meant to communicate to the reader associations with closing: exclusion or concealment. It is also half-closed like an eyelid, and the window itself is presented anthropomorphically as an organ of sight. It represents, of course, her father's sight. This relates to the old idea that "the eyes are the windows of the soul." Though partially closed as in dozing, this eye is not sleeping but seeing a parade of sleeping people go before it. This startling idea could have many possible implications for the poem. One is that it is looking into a dream, and that everything that is to be seen outside is a dream. In that case the poem is not truly describing memories at all but is a dream or is being presented as a dream.
The narrator next describes her childhood house as being clad in clapboards that are whitish and waxy. By this point in her poetic career, Sexton had absorbed the principles of psychoanalysis through her reading of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). She would certainly have known of the standard meanings of symbols used in dream analysis as expounded by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Among these symbols is the regular substitution of a house for a woman's body. Furthermore, the description in the poem of the house's color and feel is suggestive of a dead body. This notion is reinforced by the earlier imagery of being buried by the earth and sky. Significantly, too, the speaker is outside of the house, as if she is rejecting her own body. The house may refer to the girl's body changing at puberty—the narrator is dying to childhood and being reborn to womanhood. However, these symbols also suggest that she feels dead when she ought to be alive to the joys of growing up.
The narrator now more vividly suggests the setting of the poem on a summer night. The exaggeration of the first line returns, this time applied to setting rather than time, describing the plants and animals characteristic of a summer night, but in a somewhat fantastic vein.
The final part of the poem more firmly establishes its setting in terms of the narrator's age and develops the themes of transformation, as well as introducing a new and final theme of the search for meaning. The narrator recalls a transitional time of life, on the border between childhood and adulthood. This change is presented in physical, bodily terms, stressing that she has not yet become biologically mature. Interestingly, there is no looking ahead to what the results of this might be. She does begin to question the cosmic powers for answers she does not possess, but these unstated questions seem not to relate to the future but merely to her present condition. The use of the past tense here suggests that she might have believed in the protection of these powers when she was young but no longer does so now. The final line of the poem stresses the angular awkwardness of an adolescent girl's body, not only through a description of her long, gangly limbs, but with an unexpected and awkward rhyme.
Sexton biographer Diane Middlebrook has pointed out that the theme of the separation of Sexton's identity from that of her parents recurs again and again in her work, presented in many different ways and from many different viewpoints. "Young" is one of the most important and best-received works in which she deals with this issue. In "Young," the response to the crisis of growing up under the difficult circumstances Sexton envisions, in which the parents are distant, abstract, and threatening, rather than nurturing and supporting, is to try to put a stop to things by halting time, a supremely childish wish. The length of time between the memory and the remembering in "Young" stretches forever, over millennia, longer than can be remembered, and consists not merely of an unimaginable series of years but of unnumbered choices and opportunities passed by. Sexton treated her poetry and her psychotherapy as alternative modes of fictive expression, and they fed and interacted with each other so that it is difficult, if not pointless, to try to disentangle them. This is demonstrated in the numerous audio recordings of her therapy sessions that her psychiatrist Martin Orne made available to Middlebrook (but which have not been completely transcribed and published). In one therapeutic session, Sexton experimented with some of the very same literary or fictionalizing motifs she used in "Young":
I have frozen that scene in time, made everyone stop moving. I thought I could stop this all from happening. That's what I want to believe—when I'm in that hard place—that's not what I believe now, just when I'm that child in trance. I can't grow up because then all these other things will happen. I want to turn around and start everything going backward.
In the same way, in "Young" time stops and stretches out forever, freezing her at the moment of transition between child and adult so that she does not have to deal with her problems with her parents or with growing up.
Isolation and Rites of Passage
According to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, whose ideas were fashionable in America in the 1960s, rites of passage, such as the initiation that young people undergo in many cultures to transfer from the status of children to that of adults, typically have three phases. These phases are, first, a separation in which the individual is isolated from society; second, an actual moment of transition from one status to another; and third, a reintegration into society on the basis of the newly attained status. The purpose of such initiations, although they are not uniformly performed at the time of biological puberty, is to transfer the individual from an innocent childhood to the world of adulthood so that marriage becomes possible. Sexton's "Young" can be read in light of these ideas, and perhaps was even written under their influence. The narrator of the poem is hovering outside of society (her home), poised at the moment of transition from child to adult. But the actual reintegration does not happen in the poem. It seems to be held in abeyance, as if the time of that summer night is being drawn out in line with the extension of time suggested at the beginning of the poem.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Imagine that you are a young woman coming of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s, facing the same challenges that Anne Sexton faced because of her gender. What are your options in terms of living an independent life? Will you need to depend on a spouse for financial support? Are you expected to bear and raise children? Write a short story describing your circumstances and how you choose to respond to them. Consider your fictional responses. How are your actions informed by your knowledge and experience of the twenty-first century?
- Research local programs in your area that use art therapy, including poetry, in the treatment of mental illness. Present some of your findings, along with examples of the therapeutic art produced, in an oral report.
- Experiment with confessional poetry. Write a poem that deals with ideas and thoughts, perhaps memories, that you find uncomfortable or even painful, but which are nevertheless important to you.
- The confessional poet Sylvia Plath was a classmate and colleague of Sexton. Read her poem "Electra on Azalea Path," which addresses her relationship with her father, who died when she was eight years old. Write an essay in which you both critique the poem and explain how it helped you to understand confessional poetry in general and "Young" in particular.
The pseudoscience of astrology contends that it is possible to predict the future from observing the position and movement of celestial bodies (sun, moon, planets); its logic was probably based on the fact that it is possible to accurately predict the regular motions of the celestial bodies themselves. It was developed in Babylon (modern Iraq), not
before the sixth or seventh century BCE, although it is often claimed to be much older. While it always met with a minority skeptical response, it became an important and prestigious body of learning, acknowledged and used by physicians, philosophers, and poets down to the time of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. It lives on even today as an element of a counterculture that can be used to deny Western science, logic, and social norms; as a motif in literature, art, and music; and in the twentieth century, in brand names and advertising.
Sexton hardly deploys the full apparatus of astrological symbolism in "Young," but she does use some elements of it. She presents the stars as anthropomorphic entities, that is, sharing human characteristics such as wisdom and sight. They are adjuncts to God who aid him in his role of administering the universe (the Biblical heavenly host: e.g., Genesis 2:1 and Psalm 33:6) and taking care of the fate of human beings. They can be interrogated about the future. In general, Sexton uses the stars and God in the poem to talk about uncertainties in a familiar, comprehensible way.
The fashion for confessional poetry began in the late 1950s with the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959), which the critic M. L. Rosenthal described as confessional. Within a few years, confessional poetry became a school exemplified by such popular poets as W. D. Snodgrass, who was Sexton's mentor (although he resisted the categorization of confessional as too limiting), as well as by Sexton herself and her colleague Sylvia Plath. The poetry was said to be confessional in part because of its subject matter. The themes that interested these poets were precisely those that an earlier generation of American poets (as well as the sensibilities of American society at large) would have kept secret and would have been ashamed to parade in public. But Snodgrass confessed the effects of divorce on his family, Plath her suicidal impulses and her hatred of her father. Sexton's poems also deal with her own death wish and with child abuse and other difficult themes. But besides the secret subject matter or the confession of what might otherwise be repressed and concealed, a more important aspect of confessional poetry was its apparent origin in the poet's real experience. This seemed like an important breakthrough in poetry, establishing a new level of importance and validity for the work of the confessional poets. Their poems were thought to be genuine because they directly reported the life circumstances of the poets, unmediated through any dense referential use of poetic tradition and technique, as though the poet's life spoke for itself. In this sense Sexton's complete lack of formal education and unfamiliarity with poetry (at the time she started writing) seem positive advantages.
Although "Young" is not among Sexton's most confessional poems in the sense of revealing taboo material, it certainly fits the general requirements of the genre (set form or type of literature). "Young" presents itself as a straightforward recitation of Sexton's memories at the end of her childhood, the moment of transition to puberty and the beginning of maturity. The poem's verisimilitude, or seeming truthfulness, is strengthened by its composition and concrete sensual images such as the heat of American summer evenings, the seemingly endless length of the summer break to school children, and the awkwardness of a girl's body going through an adolescent growth spurt.
It eventually became apparent to critics that confessional poetry was not entirely what it seemed to be. Confessional poetry is still poetry and is therefore an entirely constructed world that exists in language rather than reality. Language is a necessarily metaphorical description of experience, far removed from experience itself. The "I" that speaks in "Young" is not Sexton but a fictional character created by Sexton. She is reporting not experiences but at most memories created by experiences. Those uncertain memories are selected, edited, and transformed by the poet. It is precisely that process of poetic creation that lends meaning to poetry. If it were even possible to represent actual experience through language, without the authorial "interference" that makes meaning, it would not be poetry, but something else. Sexton's biographer Diane Middlebrook suggests that far from genuinely reporting experience, her poetry allowed Sexton to indulge in her propensity to fictionalize herself and to create poetry that would impress critics and audience as fresh and new even if its genuineness was also fabricated. Middlebrook writes,
Cultivation of her recently discovered talent had literally remade Anne Sexton as a person, turning her into someone self-created in the first-person voice of her poetry…. She spent hours … trying to write poems that didn't sound like poems she had already written.
Once it was realized that the confessional element in the poetry was as much created as any other literary effect, confessional poetry lost its steam as a movement and its popularity declined.
Certainly the confessional nature of "Young" vanishes upon closer inspection. It deals with themes expressed in a complex metaphorical language comprehensible only through an appreciation of Sexton's work as a whole, and not clearly accessible through a simple reading of the poem's language. Its ultimate themes, too, far from being confessional, have only a metaphorical or symbolic relationship to any actual experience of Sexton's life. In short the very idea of confessional poetry, so powerful at the time, was a misunderstanding of the ordinary poetic character of the works involved.
Psychoanalysis and Symbolism
Numerous images in "Young" are symbolic; that is, they represent a concept or idea. For example, the house may represent the speaker's transformation into womanhood and the windows her relationship with her parents. One of the lasting achievements of renowned psychiatrist Sigmund Freud's creation of psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century is the idea that the symbolic structure of literature is based on the nature of the unconscious mind. Literature therefore can be interpreted to reveal a deeper personal meaning expressed in the same metaphorical language as dreams and other revelations of the unconscious mind such as slips of the tongue. These ideas still had tremendous currency in the 1950s and 1960s and were readily absorbed by Sexton through her reading of Freud during the early stage of her own psychiatric treatment. She conceived of her own poetry being written in the metalanguage of Freudian dream symbolism and often mentioned that she herself did not understand what she wrote until she read a poem after publication and applied the principle of dream interpretation to it.
Another psychoanalytical idea that bears on "Young" is transference. Transference is the patient's building up of an artificial relationship with her therapist based on transferring to him feelings that genuinely exist for some important authority figure in her life, most often a parent. This allows the quick creation of the trust necessary for a therapeutic relationship. Sexton famously told her psychiatrist Martin Orne that she realized she had undergone transference, that is, the transference to her therapist of her feelings for her father, when she read back over her old poem "Eden Revisited" and saw that it symbolically revealed the transference. This is very likely also part of the explanation of the most difficult passage in "Young." In the poem, her father (or rather his symbolic organ of sight) is said to be able to see a sort of parade of sleeping people. This would make much more sense if it applied to Orne, who, as a psychiatrist, made a regular habit of looking into the sleeping dream life of his patients. So Sexton may be conflating the figures of father and therapist in a classic transference.
The traditional hallmark of poetry is meter or the rhythm of the language. "Young" has no particular meter and reads no differently from prose. This technique is called free verse and is common in modern poetry, which after World War I began to experiment with ways of making poetry unconfined by tradition. The only traditional poetic devices Sexton employs are a parallel repetition in lines 7 to 8 and the suggestion of rhyme in the last two lines. Both purposefully seem jarringly out of place, as though meant to suggest the awkwardness of adolescence described in the poem.
The original feminist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sometimes called first-wave feminism, was aimed at making the legal status of men and women equal. In the United States, this was accomplished before Sexton's birth, with women securing the right to vote, the right to own property, and many other reforms. Second-wave feminism sought to secure equality in the social as well as the legal sphere and so sought to change the prevailing social relations between men and women. This movement challenged the notion that women, particularly upper middle-class women like Sexton, were expected to find fulfillment in their lives entirely through the raising of their children and the support of their husbands by maintaining the household. The failure of this paradigm in Sexton's own life was one of the subjects of her own written notes about her therapy (as reported by Middlebrook, her biographer):
I realize, with guilt, that I am a woman, that it should be the children, or my husband, or my home—not writing. But it is not—I do love my children but am not feminine enough to be all lost in their care. It wears me—I do not have the patience. (How can you really know what I mean—you have never been worn down by a nagging child?)
These simple facts of her life seem to disturb Sexton more than any psychoneurotic symptoms. Her poetry was an escape from that kind of life, which she felt was eroding her identity. In this regard, Sexton was a participant in second-wave feminism.
The Culture of Psychotherapy
The concept of modern psychotherapy, in which a patient has a private consultation with a therapist on a regular basis over an extended period of time, and the content of each session is essentially a discussion between the patient and therapist about the former's problems, is relatively recent. It goes back little further than Sigmund Freud's invention of psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century. The concept has, however, been adopted by a wide range of psychotherapies, and especially in the post-World War II United States, it became a standard paradigm of treatment. Sexton began psychiatric treatment for what today might be called postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter Linda in 1955 and was soon hospitalized for showing suicidal tendencies. Though no definitive diagnosis was ever made, Sexton continued to suffer long bouts of depression and made several suicide attempts over the years before succeeding in 1974. Sexton's poetry very much grew out of her therapeutic environment. Her psychiatrist Martin Orne recommended that she begin to write poetry as another way of expressing the material that was discussed during their therapeutic sessions, thereby helping her more fully to understand and come to grips with her psychological problems. Before this, Sexton had never shown any special interest in poetry, but she was impelled to write by the process of psychotherapy.
Although "Young" is not her most intensely therapeutic poem, it certainly deals with matters directly related to her therapy, namely her troubled relationship with her parents, especially going back to her early adolescence, the temporal setting of the poem. Its therapeutic quality is also part of the confessional nature of Sexton's poetry because in it she reveals what might otherwise have been kept secret between herself and her therapist. Conversely, Orne created controversy when, even though it was many years after her death, he made available to Sexton's biographer Diane Middlebrook hundreds of tapes of Sexton's therapeutic sessions, which, strictly speaking, ought never to have been revealed because of the patient's privacy rights in therapy.
Sexton' poetry was firmly rooted in her therapeutic experience. Although Orne was not a psychoanalyst, the popular psychology of the 1950s was Freudian, that is, based on the ideas of Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and modern psychology. At the beginning of her therapy, Sexton immersed herself in Freud's writings and especially in popularizations of Freud's work. As a result, once she started to write poetry, Sexton expressed many of her ideas in symbols important to Freud's understanding of the human mind. She also interpreted her own work using Freudian literary criticism, applying techniques to literary texts that were originally intended to reveal hidden meaning in the symbolism of dreams and other psychological phenomena. Using these techniques, she found new meanings in her own poems that she had not consciously understood when writing them. She told Orne, "You would be surprised to know how little I understand of my own poems." Part of the reason for this was that she wrote her poetry in a sort of trance state similar to the trances induced in her therapy by hypnosis or drugs such as sodium pentathol, during which she would write down poetic images that appeared in her imagination.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s-1960s: Social norms cast women in the role of wife and mother.
Today: Women find fulfillment in a variety of careers and ways of life.
- 1950s-1960s: Before the confessional poets, poetry rarely dealt with controversial personal issues, and such themes in the poetry of Sexton and others seem shocking.
Today: Secrets of poets' lives are routinely spilled out on the page with little public reaction.
- 1950s-1960s: Therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis are commonly used by psychiatrists in an attempt to reach a less repressed level of patients' minds, which psychiatrists believe to be more communicative about patients' problems.
Today: Techniques such as hypnosis have been increasingly discredited because of the possibility that they lead to the formation of false memories and actually obstruct psychotherapy.
The initial reviews of Sexton's All My Pretty Ones were mixed. None make direct reference to "Young," which was originally published in that volume. James Dickey, in his review for the New York Times Book Review doubtless has this poem in mind, however, among others, when he unfavorably characterizes the book as a soap opera, a collection of meaningless and unrelated vignettes. The same tendencies have been noted and interpreted more favorably as a probing examination of American suburban life, as by Jo Gill in her Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics.
More recently, "Young" has not fared any better in attracting critical attention. Only superficial mention is made in general studies of Sexton's verse, and that only rarely. Diana Hume George in Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton (1987) calls "Young" "perhaps Sexton's best single childhood poem," and sees it as crystallizing the "moment before sexuality will change everything." In Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Middlebrook identifies "Young" as part of a series of poems from throughout Sexton's career that deal with the poet's disturbed relationship with her father. These poems include, besides "Young," "The Bells," "The Moss of His Skin," "The Truth the Dead Know," "All My Pretty Ones," "Ghosts," "The House," "Wallflower," "And One for My Dame," "Flee on Your Donkey," "Consorting with Angels," and "In the Beach House," as well as many of the poems in Transformations, particularly "Briar Rose (Snow White)," and especially her play 45 Mercy Street. This approach has not been followed by later critics, however, who, as Gill observes in her Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics, believe it does not make a satisfactory distinction between the author and her narrative voice. This point, however, does not affect the coherence of Sexton's poems, which constantly return to the same theme.
Bradley A. Skeen
Skeen is a classics professor. In this essay, he considers whether or not "Young" is truly confessional.
As a poet, and indeed as a person, Sexton was primarily concerned with telling stories. Diane Middlebrook begins her book Anne Sexton: A Biography with an account of Sexton's press interviews, in which Sexton was usually asked to explain how she began writing poetry. Every time, she answered that question using many of the same facts and even many of the same phrases, as if she were improvising on a prepared script and changing it to suit the needs or expectations of the audience. Most interesting, however, was the form the story took. The story she told in answer to the question was based on the fairy tale of Snow White. The wicked queen became Sexton's mother, her poisoned apple the pressure of society for her to conform to a conventional life as a wife and mother in the Boston suburbs. The poisoned sleep became her suicide attempts, from which she was awakened not by the kiss of a handsome prince but by psychotherapy and its manifestation in poetry. Living "happily ever after" was her career as a poet. Sexton often said that when she wrote something down, she remembered what she had written rather than the original idea or memory on which it was based.
The inability to distinguish between memories of actual events and memories of ideas, fantasies, or other kinds of narratives is known as confabulation. Sexton certainly seems to have had a propensity in this direction. She reported to her psychiatrist Martin Orne many facts and events she supposedly remembered about her family that his investigations showed had no basis in reality. She seemed rather to report narratives that she had created as if they were recollections of true events. In some cases she seems not to have been aware of what she was doing. But in other cases she was fully aware that what she said in therapy was entirely fictional. In 1957, she wrote a fifteen-page typescript called the "Personal Record." This text has never been published, but Middlebrook summarizes and quotes extensively from it. Sexton produced her record to help keep straight for herself what she considered to be true and what she considered to be fabrications (she called them "truth crimes") in what she was telling Orne. This began when she made up a story about being molested by a family friend at the beach and was amazed that Orne accepted it as the truth. In her "Personal Record" she says the following:
I am nothing, if not an actress off the stage. In fact, it comes down to the terrible truth that there is no true part of me…. I am a storymaker. … I know that often people in analysis will tell these great stories about … their father etc. and that they are fictitious but are a childhood fantasy.
This shows that Sexton considered her therapeutic sessions to be as much a form of creative expression or performance as her poetry was. Moreover, she had admitted as much directly to Orne during one of their sessions. Again, Middlebrook quotes extensively from audio tapes of Sexton's therapeutic sessions supplied to her by Orne: "I couldn't make all this up or I don't exist at all! Or do I make up a trauma to go with my symptoms?" To a highly unusual degree, therapy and poetry served the same purpose for Sexton, allowing her to create the narratives that obsessed and fulfilled her, as far as she was able to know fulfillment.
Sexton treated the theme of the separation of her identity from her parents in many of her works, using many different metaphors and guises, as Middlebrook observes. In her own life this transition was very difficult because of her disturbed relationship with her parents. In some respects the treatment of the theme in "Young" is more straightforward than in some of her other poems, in which it is deeply allegorical and symbolic. But "Young" is not truly the revelation of personal secrets in the simple sense suggested by the label confessional poetry. In fact it is highly contrived. It is a fictive narrative like any other poem, which at best can be said to have a relationship with the actual events of the poet's life. Just as Sexton's psychotherapy was the inspiration of her poetry, she used her therapy as another platform to create fictional narratives that were not simple statements of her life history but were metaphorical and analogical explorations of her feelings about that history. So the unusually detailed knowledge of Sexton's therapy that is available does not throw light on the problem of finding confessed truths in her poetry. Instead, it reveals that her poetry and therapy together were a tangled web of fictive narratives that completely obscured her real life, that were both in some sense perhaps an effort on Sexton's part to supply herself with a life history different than the one she lived.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), published during the height of Sexton's career, articulates the second-wave feminist case against the life of a suburban housewife, which Sexton found so limiting and oppressive.
- Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977), edited by Sexton's daughter Linda Gray Sexton, is a collection of Sexton's letters that reveals much about her life and its connection to her work.
- Eggs of Things, written in 1963 by Sexton and her friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin, is the first of a series of children's books the two of them collaborated on.
- Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963 and posthumously under her own name in 1966, describes a female college student's battles with depression and her eventual hospitalization. It is generally believed to closely reflect Plath's own experiences and is the most important confessional novel.
- Sexton's mentor W. D. Snodgrass released Selected Poems: 1957-1987 in 1987. It is an anthology of what he regarded as the most important poems of his career.
Bearing in mind, then, that the narrative world of "Young" is not truly confessional and cannot be directly compared to Sexton's personal life but rather is a product of artistic creation like any other poem, it is possible to look at the poem on its own terms. This reveals not confession but creation, and indeed, the word poetry comes from the ancient Greek word meaning creation. "Young" is not a report of Sexton's life but of a life that Sexton created. The narrator of the poem presents herself as recalling the onset of adolescence, the time when one leaves behind the innocence of childhood and begins to assume a new identity or sense of self. The adult speaker is thus articulating the second major separation of the child's identity from that of her parents as her body becomes physically mature and her sense of independence develops. The first separation occurs in infancy and earliest childhood when the infant must create a separate identity from the condition of absolute physical and emotional dependence of the newborn on its parents. The small child forms a sense of identity primarily through building relationships with the caregivers. But now the narrator of "Young" is attempting to describe the loss or death of that identity, and the transformation of that identity or the birth of a new and unknown identity that is not yet formed. The poem seeks to isolate a particular period of time as its language evokes the language of children. Its phraseology is often highly exaggerated and fabulist, as though a fairy tale is being told. But unlike a fairy tale, there is no moral, no happy ending. The poem asks questions for which it provides no answers. Ultimately, though, the experience of the adult makes the final tone of the poem wistful and almost mournful. The adult narrator is perhaps revisiting memories from the end of childhood precisely because her adult self still has not figured out any of the problems or questions about life that the adolescent also asked and had expected would be answered as she grew from childhood to adulthood. In the final sense, the poem's adult speaker seems no more enlightened than the child. It indeed seems as if in some sense time in that person's world stopped on that summer night and she has never been able to move beyond it.
How does the narrator recognize what we might call separation from the parents? First, her physical location. She is positioned outside the house, apart from her family. Moreover, it is nighttime—a time of day traditionally in poetry associated with mystery or the unknown. It is fairly clear that the speaker remembers her childhood as one in which she felt no lack of material comforts but felt isolated nevertheless, but this is the judgment of the adult, looking back and imposing truth upon her childhood. The adult narrator also characterizes her relationship with her parents as distant and dim. There is something threatening about the cones of light spilling out of her parents' ‘eyes,’ rather like the searchlights looking for escapees in a prison movie. As children often do, the child the narrator used to be was seeking to escape and find, perhaps, solace and comfort in nature, hoping that this could be the place she could go with all her unanswered questions. Readers recognize that the child the narrator remembers feels and understands as an adult that there was little meaningful communication within the family (notice her mother and father have separate bedrooms), and the grown speaker also sees that the child she was attempted to fill this need by seeking a meaningful connection elsewhere, with the earth and the sky, in other words with the cosmos or the divine. The adolescent thus acted on her impulse by separating herself physically from her parents. The narrator recalls how she evoked and solicited wisdom, which she obviously did not receive from her parents, from the heavens and from death.
"Young" stands in a self-contained world created by Sexton, which does not confess Sexton's inner life and past history but is built on those foundations like any other poem. "Young" was first published in her collection All My Pretty Ones, whose title comes from a line of William Shakespeare's Macbeth in which the character MacDuff learns of the death of his children and refers to them as "all my pretty ones" (act 4, scene 3, line 216). Sexton's poem is not about her childhood but is perhaps about a childhood that she might have had, a childhood that died without being realized.
W. D. Snodgrass, Sexton's patron and a leading confessional poet, never liked that term, not only because he considered it too limiting a conception of his poetry but because in the end the concept was not useful. Every poet reveals himself as he writes, so that is not an especially distinguishing criterion, and every poet fictionalizes herself and her experience, the confessional poets no less than any others. Although the term seems destined to be attached to Snodgrass, Plath, Sexton, and the other confessional poets because they constitute a closely knit school bound by ties of time, subject matter, style, and personal connections between the poets, critics soon lost their enthusiasm for reading their poetry as truly personal confessions of secret truths. Sexton created in "Young" a moment in a young woman's life, but it is not a moment of Sexton's own life. For Sexton, confession, whether in verse or in therapy, was an exercise in fictive creation.
Source: Bradley A. Skeen, Critical Essay on "Young," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Middlebrook considers how The Complete Poems reflects the course of Sexton's life.
When Anne Sexton's posthumous Complete Poems came out four years ago, poet Katha Pollitt summarized the negative judgment many critics arrived at in their reviews: "the sheer quantity of inferior work does tend to dull one's response to the gems. One puts down this enormous book with the nagging feeling that all along a slim volume of verse was trapped inside it." Contemporary poets tend to be assessed by the carat: prized for glitter, durability and for scale that permits resetting in an anthology. As Pollitt says, "the gems are there" in Sexton, too.
Yet the appearance of a complete poems also presents an opportunity to pose questions about a writer whose entire body of work is the necessary critical context. How are the gems related to surrounding poems? Is the un-gemlike work inferior as art, or does it represent different artistic goals? Sexton's method of writing, which she referred to as "milking the unconscious," often produced a loosely-structured poetry dense with simile, freaked with improbable associations. In a poem addressed to James Wright, Sexton herself acknowledged she knew the effect offended certain tastes: "There is too much food and no one left over / to eat up all the weird abundance" ("The Black Art"). Weird: uncanny, magical, unconventional. While some of Sexton's most admired poems work, like little machines, on well-oiled armatures of rhythm or rhyme (such as "All My Pretty Ones," "The Starry Night," "Wanting to Die"), others equally powerful depend on manic or despairing or ecstatic cascades of association ("The Furies," "O Ye Tongues") that flow like an open spigot. The gems, or closed forms, tend to be early; the looser style, later. In this collection, the reader can watch Sexton evolve her second style as a way of exploring a changing relation to her subject matter.
Sexton's Complete Poems is a compilation of the eight books she saw into print, plus an edited collection of work left in manuscript at the time of her death…. The early poetry (To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960; All My Pretty Ones, 1962) holds up very well. But as this volume shows, Anne Sexton made bolder exploration of her lifelong subject—her experiences of madness—in later work, beginning with the volume Live or Die (1966). Mining the realm of the unconscious as she had been taught by both psychotherapy and contemporary writing, after 1962 Sexton became increasingly preoccupied with the psychological and social consequences of inhabiting a female body.
Because Sexton's writing seems so personal she is often labeled a "confessional" poet and grouped (to her disadvantage) with poets such as [Amy] Lowell, [John] Berryman, [Theodore] Roethke, and [Sylvia] Plath. But Sexton resisted the label "confessional"; she preferred to be regarded as a "storyteller." To emphasize that she considered the speaking "I" in her poetry as a literary rather than a real identity, Sexton invariably opened her public performances by reading the early poem "Her Kind." These are the first and last stanzas:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
No matter what poetry she had on an evening's agenda, Sexton offered this persona as a point of entry to her art. "I" in the poem is a disturbing, marginal female whose power is associated with disfigurement, sexuality, and magic. But at the end of each stanza, "I" is displaced from sufferer onto storyteller. With the lines "A woman like that … I have been her kind" Sexton conveys the terms on which she wishes to be understood: not victim, but witness and witch.
Sexton's Complete Poems yields most when read as if it contained a narrative: an account of a woman cursed with a desire to die. Why is she different from other women? Where did the curse come from? A story line with a beginning, middle, and end takes shape in Complete Poems as Sexton systematically exhausts a set of culturally acceptable explanations for the condition of her kind. These are, first, a psychiatric explanation; later, a sociological explanation; and finally a spiritual explanation ….
As I have been suggesting, I find Sexton a startlingly original and valuable artist. But Sexton differs from members of this group in two important ways that make it difficult to rank her among these other writers. First, she was not an intellectual. Sexton had only a high school education; she got her training as a poet in workshops. Though she had a quick mind and read widely, her thinking was intuitive rather than systematic. She did not identify herself with a literary tradition, she did not measure herself in terms of precursors, she did not acquire a critical language by which to classify and discriminate. Hers is not a poetry of ideas—aesthetic, political, philosophical, or historical.
Second, she stopped writing the kind of short lyric that remains coin of the realm in American poetry: the lyric of perfect economy composed according to an exacting formal standard, whether in meter or free verse. Critics still praise Sexton's early work for its control of the materials of disorder by means of formal effects she dismissed as "tricks." Manuscripts of early poems reveal that Sexton often began by setting herself a design problem: a stanza template with rhyme positions designated "a, b, c," etc.; then she would write a poem into the mould. She continued this practice, with good results, through 1962: her workshop years ….
Sexton's later style developed out of the demands of her subject matter: accounting for madness. The exploratory, associational method she devised gave priority to the implacable structure of unconscious processes. This method is most successful in such poems as "O Ye Tongues," "The Jesus Papers," "The Furies," "The Death of the Fathers," "The Death Baby," Transformations—works where the traces of a narrative adumbrate a boundary of reference within which to rationalize the flow of association. For much of Sexton's Complete Poems, the horizon or story line is, of course, autobiographical, focused on Sexton's attraction to death. Sexton's Complete Poems might be described as a psycho-narrative in verse, to which each poem is a contribution.
Moreover, the type of poem Sexton evolved was probably an inevitable creation in mid-century American poetry. It articulates the dilemma of a female recipient of certain ideas about women's place in the social order; it invests this dilemma in a single persona, a performing voice. The contemporary writings of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich offer perhaps the closest analogues to Sexton's work, since their own dilemmas were equally privileged and middle class. As young women all three had embraced prevailing ideologies about women's roles. All three of them seem to have been excessively susceptible to highly conventional expectations, tormented by questions about whether they were "good" daughters, students, mothers, wives. As young artists they had to gain recognition in a prestige system condescending to women, and the conflicts they experienced between the roles of woman and artist fueled their development. In fact, the gender specificity of much of their poetry helps us see how specifically "masculine" were the concerns of peers such as Lowell, [W. D.] Snodgrass, Berryman, [Richard] Wright, Roethke, [Allen] Ginsberg—who struggled to attain spiritual authority in the postwar consumer society littered with unusable masculine stereotypes.
But for Plath and Rich, the male-identified literary tradition eventually suggested models for transcendence uncongenial to Sexton. Both Plath and Rich essentially revised, for women's use, the poetics of romanticism which centers the poem in a visionary ego. Plath adopted the voice of a maenad; Rich evolved a powerfully personal voice of informed social criticism.
Sexton's voice remained unembarrassedly domestic. She tested notions about self and God against feelings schooled in repression, and her poems do not transcend, they explore this repression. Sexton's art celebrates word-magic, buffoonery, regression, "milking the unconscious," as inexhaustible sources of resistance to the deadly authority of the stereotypes constraining adult women's lives. Sexton's artistry was to achieve a mode of expression for this particular female consciousness, expression at once intimate and theatrical. Her audiences, mostly women, responded to that voice as the manifestation of a condition they had previously felt to be wholly personal and interior. Suddenly, poetry had expanded to acknowledge a whole new citizenry: the middle-class American woman beginning to seek liberation from confinement in domestic roles. As American poetry slowly incorporates a feminist consciousness, Sexton's work seems uncannily ahead of its time. It seems bound to endure at least as long as the social and psychological dilemmas that inspired her ….
Source: Diane Middlebrook, "Poets of Weird Abundance," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vols. 12-13, Nos. 1-2, 1985, pp. 293-315.
In the following essay, Johnson presents a critical overview of Sexton's works, including "Young," and career.
At the heart of Anne Sexton's poetry is a search for identity, and her well-known infatuation with death—the cause of her rather notorious fame, and the apparent reason her work is often dismissed as beneath serious consideration—has little to do with this search; in her best work, in fact, it is most often an annoying irrelevancy, however potent it seems in its occasional command of the poet's psyche. Quite simply, Sexton's poetry is a poetry of life, and if her work is "confessional" at times, or even most of the time, this does not mean that the poet's confessions (the word itself is misleading) necessarily describe experiences ridden with guilt or pain. This is where Sexton's poetry diverges so dramatically from that of Sylvia Plath, of whom she is frequently seen as a kind of epigonic follower. Plath mythologizes death with great power and succinctness, and places herself at the center of a myth whose message is "blackness—blackness and silence"; her vision is brutally nihilistic, and she embraces it willingly. Plath's struggle is that of the mythmaker—primarily artistic rather than personal, since the personal self is mercilessly pared away in her poetry (as are all other selves) in deference to the controlling myth. Anne Sexton, on the other hand, speaks longingly and lovingly of a world of health, of childlike wholeness—a world toward which she struggles valiantly and against insuperable odds. To understand her poetry as a record of this struggle, and as a testament to its value and importance, is to appreciate its special relevance to the contemporary world, a world of increasing disjunction between personal and social selves and one whose chaotic, literally "maddening" effect on the individual mind Anne Sexton manages to convey with that blend of craft and vulnerability that is her special magic.
Unlike Plath, and certainly unlike Robert Lowell—with whom her name is also frequently and pointlessly linked—Sexton is a Primitive, an extraordinarily intense artist who confronts her experience with unsettling directness, largely innocent of "tradition" and privately developing an idiom exactly suited to that experience. As Louis Simpson remarked after the publication of her first book, "This then is a phenomenon … to remind us, when we have forgotten in the weariness of literature, that poetry can happen." The reader's sense of the direct and seemingly spontaneous quality of Sexton's earliest volumes—To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960), All My Pretty Ones (1962) and Live or Die (1966)—can partially be explained by noting that she first began writing poetry, at the age of twenty-eight, as a form of personal therapy, a way of formalizing past traumas and of coping with an increasing sense of disorientation in her conventional role of suburban wife and mother. Her emotional instability, including her suicidal impulses, contributed to the immediacy, rawness and power of much of the poetry. This kind of therapy no doubt helped the poet in her personal life, but what is heroic in Sexton's case, and particularly relevant to her readers, is the earnestness and scrupulosity with which she mastered her craft, developed her highly original voice, and set about the task of communicating her experience to others. That Anne Sexton herself later succumbed to the "weariness of literature"—her later work, on the whole, is distinctly inferior to her early poetry, and verges at times on self-parody—and finally to her own destructive impulses, does not diminish the value and irresistible power of her finest achievements, which speak to us in a voice by turns inspired and beleaguered, joyful and aggrieved, lost in the confusions of self but found, ultimately, in her masterful articulation of her experience as a whole, a complex experience which serves as a painfully truthful mirror of the age.
Sexton's first two volumes have much in common, both in their multi-faceted handling of the identity theme and in their adherence to rather strict poetic forms. In both there is a constructive relationship between the deeply painful, inchoate materials—experiences in a mental institution, the loss of the poet's parents, and unceasing struggle to define her own selfhood—and the restraining, masterful form of the poems themselves. There is little sense that the poet is arbitrarily forcing her experiences into rigid, inappropriate shapes, primarily because she convinces us that she has pierced to the core of those experiences to discover shapes inherent in them; the formal, measured quality of the verse not only indicates the poet's necessary caution in dealing with her turbulent materials, but also establishes a crucial distance from which she may safely view her continuing struggle and present it to her readers in palatable form. Yet the controlled, meditative voice of these early poems is frequently mingled with an openly vulnerable, "confessional" voice, one which conveys genuine, childlike experiences of pain and terror. The poems are neither songs of innocence nor experience, but continually oscillate between conflicting states of mind, admitting continued disorientation while simultaneously creating an impressive poetic order.
An important difference between the first two books should be recognized, however. To Bedlam and Partway Back comprises an ordering of a specific, urgent experience—the descent into madness and a partial return—while All My Pretty Ones broadens from this painful but rich experience to consider more general themes of loss (especially the loss of parents) and upon an explicit need to define the poet's self in terms of the world. Although Sexton's books describe an ongoing personal development and flow naturally one into the other, each of the early volumes has a distinct identity and merits separate discussion. As Geoffrey Hartman has noted, To Bedlam and Partway Back is not merely a collection of poems but "truly a book," and there is ample evidence that Sexton organized the volume with meticulous care. The shorter lyrics in Part One deal with a cluster of obsessive themes, all related to the poet's search for identity, while the pair of long, meditative poems in Part Two achieve a tentative but emotionally satisfying resolution ….
By far the majority of poems in To Bedlam and Partway Back explore the poet's identity in terms of other women. There are poems about being buried alive ("The Moss of His Skin"), paralysis within a marriage and its "pantomime of love" ("The Farmer's Wife"), the literal paralysis of the goddess Diana, changed forever to a laurel tree and noting in despair that "blood moves still in my bark bound veins" ("Where I Live in This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree"). In one of the most moving of these poems, "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward," Sexton dramatizes the relationship between a mother and her daughter with a typical mingling of tenderness and a hopeless sense of estrangement. The mother can only consider her child a "fragile visitor," her "funny kin," and the reason is the mother's lack of her own selfhood, since she is, after all, "unknown."….
In seeking to define her own identity through poetic fictions about other women, and about relationships between women, Sexton merely sees her own identity as inferior and finds that genuine relationship is unavailable. Later volumes will explore the causes behind her failure to "connect" meaningfully with others, but in To Bedlam and Partway Back, her failure leads directly into madness. Although she pictured herself, wryly, as "a secret beatnik hiding in the suburbs in a square house on a dull street," any pride she might have taken in her role as poet seems cancelled by this image of herself as a misfit, someone who did not live in that "good world" she envied her great aunt and could not create for herself. One senses that Anne Sexton felt herself forced into poetry, that her inability to find satisfaction in a conventional role made the pose of a "secret beatnik," a rebel—in the sense that both poetry and madness are forms of rebellion—her only means of survival. Unlike Emily Dickinson, who felt that "Much Madness is divinest Sense" and whose extreme self-sufficiency (however "mad" it might have appeared to her Amherst contemporaries) was the sign of a fully realized identity, Sexton desperately needed the approval of others: "I want everyone to hold up large signs saying YOU'RE A GOOD GIRL." Her belief that she had failed to be "good," and that she had no way of finding a "good world," led to a madness that was not divinest sense but hellish chaos, a threatened disintegration of selfhood.
This linking of madness with evil, with the inability to be "good," recurs in Sexton's poems dealing with her experiences in mental institutions. She continues to lament her sense of loss and disorientation: "They lock me in this chair at eight a.m. / and there are no signs to tell the way" ("Music Swims Back to Me"). In the first stanza of this poem she pictures herself as an orphan seeking the way home … These lines, like Ophelia's mad speeches, blend irreality and the absence of sequential thought with a terrifying, sane intuition; immersed in a surreal, abandoned world, the speaker nonetheless understands her need to escape, to find "sign posts" back toward health.
Does Sexton imagine any way out of this impasse, any way to escape the debilitating terrors of a consciousness plagued by a conviction of its own evil? One possibility is to replace self-loathing with an open acceptance of evil—even admitting the likelihood that she is "not a woman." What is remarkable, however, is not this admission itself but the lively, almost gleeful tone in which it is uttered:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming of evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
"A woman like that is misunderstood," Sexton adds wryly, but the poem is a serious attempt to understand such a woman—her sense of estrangement, her impulse toward death—by internalizing evil and giving it a voice: a chortling, self-satisfied, altogether amiable voice which suggests that "evil" is perhaps the wrong word after all. Sexton's witch, waving her "nude arms at villages going by," becomes something of value to the community, performing the function Kurt Vonnegut has called the "domestication of terror." Unlike Plath's madwoman in "Lady Lazarus"—a woman at the service of a private, unyielding anger, a red-haired demon whose revenge is to "eat men like air"—Sexton's witch is essentially harmless. Although she remains vulnerable—"A woman like that is not afraid to die"—she rejects anger in favor of humor, flamboyance, self-mockery. She is a kind of perverse entertainer, and if she seems cast in the role of a martyr, embracing madness in order to domesticate it for the rest of the community—making it seem less threatening, perhaps even enjoyable—it is nevertheless a martyrdom which this aspect of Sexton accepts with a peculiar zest.
Poems like "Her Kind and "Music Swims Back to Me" help create the famous, fatally glamorous mask of Anne Sexton—part lovable witch, part helpless madwoman—for which she became famous, and which is often discussed as if it were the only self present in Sexton's poetry. Denise Levertov, in her well-intentioned, somewhat patronizing remarks on Sexton's suicide, suggested that Sexton was "too intensely troubled to be fully aware of her influence or to take on its responsibility. Therefore it seems to me that we who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction." But Sexton did take on a personal responsibility for the interest her work aroused—she sent cheerful, supportive letters, for instance, to the countless victims of mental illness who wrote to her—and much of her poetry, from the first volume onward, expresses anguish over her destructive impulses, with an awareness that they are threatening to her poetry as well as to her personal well-being.
Part Two of To Bedlam and Partway Back contains only three poems, but they are long, reflective works which attempt to take stock of the poet's progress, to state a rationale for her kind of poetry, and especially to acknowledge life-long conflicts that have prevented a healthy development of self. These goals are directly addressed in the volume's longest and finest poem, "The Double Image." Here the poet gathers all her themes into a single autobiographical narration, seeking that "certain sense of order" through a careful, measured recounting of her seemingly chaotic and random experiences. Like many of Sexton's more somber, reflective poems, "The Double Image" is addressed to her daughter, establishing the crucial dynamic between the poet's desire for an affectionate, healthy relationship with the child, and her yearning toward the madness that threatens to separate them. The poem's tender, carefully modulated voice is firmly aligned on the side of health, but the poet remains aware of her continued vulnerability. She sees her madness as an unknown, demonic force, an "ugly angel" whose voice enchants the poet—much like the "disquieting muses" in Plath's analogous narrative. After giving way to madness and losing her child, Sexton has returned as a "partly mended thing," still unable to assume a healthy identity … The poem's title refers to Sexton's mother and daughter, seen as potent forces pulling her simultaneously in two directions. Sexton's mother (certainly a cold, uncaring figure in this poem) represents "the stony head of death," while the final lines speak of the daughter's inestimable value for the poet's present self, not only as a symbol of the life-force but as a hopeful foreshadowing of her own developing selfhood ….
In Sexton's second volume, All My Pretty Ones (1962), she broadens her scope from consideration of the specific, urgent experience of madness to consider more universally comprehensible forms of loss. Sexton's parents died in 1959, and though she insisted at the time that she would not write poems about them, she later changed her mind. The first part of this volume contains "The Truth the Dead Know," "All My Pretty Ones" and "Lament," poems dealing with her parents' deaths and among the finest she ever wrote. Not surprisingly, the ostensible theme of bereavement is mingled with an examination of the poet's continuing struggle toward identity. In that strange, bitter elegy, "The Truth the Dead Know," Sexton seems to eschew the common rituals of mourning: "Gone, I say and walk from church, / refusing the stiff procession to the grave"; she prefers, instead, to "cultivate myself" and to avoid such a powerful intimation of mortality as the death of both parents within a few months. The poem ends, however, by emphasizing not her own refusals but those of the dead, and into her voice creeps something like envy ….
A far gentler, more nostalgic poem like "Young" recalls the poet's innocence as a "lonely kid" whose relationship to her mother was not yet perceived as a "funnel"; and in "Old Dwarf Heart" she create a separate, mythical self—again resembling Plath's disquieting muses—who insists upon "the decay we're made of": "When I lie down to love, old dwarf heart shakes her head." Sexton can never escape this destructive self ("Where I go, she goes"), which is perceived as having originated in a vicious Oedipal "tangle," but the loss of her parents does give her a kind of grim new beginning, and the rest of the volume explores various avenues of escape.
In her attempt to counter the truth the dead know with a gentler, more humanizing truth, Sexton seeks out two major sources of comfort: religious belief and domestic love. Her early cluster of religious poems, forming Part Two of All My Pretty Ones, initiates a theme that will recur throughout her work—especially in her posthumous volume, The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)—but she seemed to find little solace in her religious ponderings; at times, in fact, they only increase her sense of guilt. In "With Mercy for the Greedy," addressed to a Catholic friend who tried to convert the poet, Sexton says with childlike sincerity: "I detest my sins and I try to believe / in the Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face, / its solid neck, its brown sleep." Unlike Emily Dickinson, who saw herself locked in a battle of wills with God the Father, a Puritan Nobodaddy who threatened her own sense of self, Sexton was drawn toward the image of a gentle, redemptive Christ, a God who was palpably human. But she concludes, ruefully, "Need is not quite belief," and explains, with typical Sexton wryness, "I was born doing reference work in sin … " In Part Three, which consists of a single poem, "The Fortress," Sexton insists that the love between herself and her daughter has greater redemptive power than any religious belief. The poet has a sense of her own value, however fleeting, in her protectiveness toward her daughter: "What ark / can I fill for you when the world goes wild?" Although she knows that "Life is not in my hands" and cannot promise that her daughter will find happiness, the poem emphasizes their tender domestic alliance, the "fortress" their togetherness forms against the "bombs" of experience.
In one of the volume's most impressive poems, "Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound," Sexton makes an ordinary boat ride into the occasion of an optimistic, even transcendent spiritual vision ….
With two accomplished volumes behind her, with a blossoming career and innumerable devoted readers, she summoned the courage to bluntly question the value of living—to decide whether, in fact, the pain of life does not outweigh its rewards. In "The Black Art" she insisted: "A woman who writes feels too much, / those trances and portents!" Her decision to explore fully those excessive feelings, to relate her mysterious "trances and portents" to her central concerns of identity, poetry and survival, helped her toward Live or Die (1966), winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the finest achievement of her career. The volume's title represents an ultimatum; the poems themselves, arranged in chronological order and reading, as Sexton herself noted, like a "fever chart," show the poet moving toward a stark confrontation with her suicidal impulses and with her "portent" that life as a whole—not only for her, but perhaps for everyone—is simply not worthwhile. And yet, as one astute reviewer, Thomas P. McDonnell, noted at the time Live or Die was first published, Sexton gives us more than "impulses": "(this) is not a poetry of spasmodic revelation or of occasional incident transformed from similitude to artifact: in its continuing wholeness one perceives the suggestion of a journey." It was a journey, as Live or Die makes clear, upon whose outcome rested her life itself, and one she approaches with great courage and her developed artistic powers. Carl Jung, discussing the obstacles to personal growth, notes that venturing into "obscurity and darkness" is absolutely essential in the quest for a new stage of development, a higher individuation of self. For Anne Sexton, there were two kinds of "darkness"—her madness, which represented personal defeat; and that agonizing uncertainty about her life and her identity which could only be eased through poetry and whose resolution—even if temporary—could represent significant progress toward mental stability and a secure sense of self. In Live or Die, Sexton has greatly matured as woman and as poet: she does not glorify madness, setting herself apart from the rest of humanity, but rather perceives it as an ignoble escape and, most of all, as a colossal waste of time. The most fearsome "obscurity and darkness," Jung suggests, lies in a sane, ego-centered approach toward personal problems, not in a surrender to the chaotic promptings of the id. In her third volume Sexton recognizes this truth, and the recognition helps produce some of her finest poetry ….
In "Wanting to Die," Sexton notes that her own body, her essential physical self, is only a "bad prison" that should be emptied of breath, of life. Through poetry she sought liberation from this cruel and unnecessary prison, a liberation that could come only through a compassionate acceptance of her own flawed but redeemable self. Thus her emphasis in Live or Die is not upon "confession," with its implication of guilt, but upon compassion for herself and for all those who have influenced her personal existence. Seeking out the origin of her illness in childhood traumas and inadequate relationships with her parents, she is not interested in assigning blame but in bringing to light the dismal facts themselves; there is a new, strong impulse to face past realities and to assess their impact on the present. If this produced only a partial liberation, at least it represented an earned freedom that could directly affect the poet's life—acting as a form of therapy—and intensify the honesty of her art as well ….
After Live or Die, Sexton's personal evolution began to seem increasingly frenetic and directionless. In her later volumes she assumes various effective guises—the witty lover of Love Poems (1969), the ribald folklorist of Transformations (1971), the religious seeker of The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)—but never again does she achieve the immediacy and fullness of Live or Die, a book that shows her largest, most personal issue examined with her utmost energy and clarity. In a sense, her later books are elaborate footnotes to that volume, developing ancillary themes and exploring areas of existence which become important once Sexton has made her crucial decision to live. And, as many critics have noted, she began to abandon the careful craftsmanship so evident in the early volumes, producing a large number of poems but letting their quality suffer a noticeable decline. Increasingly uncertain about the direction of her career, Sexton began to rely on the familiar, melodramatic voice of her earlier work, frequently repeating herself and no longer seeming able, or willing, to hone that voice through a rigorous attention to form, or to deepen its implications through fresh or surprising insights. As an artist, in short, she seems to stop growing. As a result, the American literary myth that a writer is only as good as her last book has been extremely damaging to Sexton, as expressed in the form of harsh or dismissive reviews of her last volumes. The recently issued collected edition of her work, however, should force readers to take another look, and especially to rediscover the value of Sexton's important earlier work.
In a letter written a few weeks before her death, Sexton remarks upon the famous closing poem of Live or Die:
I do not know how I feel about such an old poem as "Live" in Live or Die. The poems stand for the moment they are written and make no promises to the future events and consciousness and raising of the unconscious as happens as one goes forward and does not look backward for an answer in an old poem.
A typically breathless, headlong statement, one which contains—with the advantage of hindsight, we can see it easily—a veiled warning, as well as a surprisingly harsh contempt of "old poems" representing experiences that are past, dead, no longer available to the poet (and, it would seem, no longer interesting to her). On the surface, it also suggests an unwillingness to learn from experience, to assimilate past insights into the vulnerable present consciousness as talismanic reminders, if not as forms of positive moral instruction. But actually the statement is consistent with Sexton's poetry as a whole, and merely states once again the darker side of her belief: one cannot go backward, and the poet can "make no promises" that artistic resolutions can remain valid beyond the experience of a particular poem. "Experiment escorts us last," as Emily Dickinson wrote, and Sexton shared this frightening awareness of the uncertain, friable nature of personal evolution, of the pitfalls lying in wait at every turn of experience. What remains for us, after her death, is to admire her spirit in facing that experience, to rejoice in her momentary triumphs and to recognize, in the poems themselves, her ultimate survival.
Source: Greg Johnson, "The Achievement of Anne Sexton," in Hollins Critic, Vol. 21, No. 3, June 1984, pp. 1-13.
Diane Wood Middlebrook
In the following excerpt, Middlebrook relates how Sexton discovered language to be therapeutic and thus began a career as a poet.
… Sexton began writing poetry at home. Following her hospitalization for suicidal depressiveness in 1956, Sexton's two young children had been removed to the care of grandmothers; Sexton found herself with no occupation but psychotherapy and convalescence. Her doctor suggested that she use her free time to improve her education. "One night I saw I. A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form," she told an interviewer. "I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’ So I sat down and wrote a sonnet. The next day I wrote another one, and so forth." She measured progress by changes in the furniture supporting her work. At first she used a card table "because I didn't think I was a poet. When I put in a desk, it was in our dining room.[ … ] Then I put up some book shelves—everything was tentative."
This "tentative" rearrangement of the household was symbolic of Sexton's changed relation to domestic life in 1957. Postpartum depression following the birth of Sexton's first daughter, Linda, led in 1954 to her first psychiatric hospitalization. On her own birthday in 1956 she had made the first of many suicide attempts. And though family members were initially reluctant to acknowledge how serious Sexton's psychological problems had become, they were generous with support once she entered regular treatment. Husband Kayo's father, George Sexton, paid for Sexton's psychotherapy; after Sexton's second major breakdown, in 1955, Kayo's mother took infant Joy into her home for three years, while Anne's sister Blanche periodically cared for Linda. Anne's mother, Mary Gray, paid for regular housekeeping, and Kayo took over the shopping and cooking when Anne could not manage.
Working alone at home, free from other responsibilities, Sexton found writing an effective therapy. "My doctor encouraged me to write more. ‘Don't kill yourself,’ he said. ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’ That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life." "I was quite naive. I thought he knew everything. Of course, he wouldn't know a good poem from a bad poem, but luckily I didn't think of that."
Sexton marked her development as a poet, rather than convalescing mental patient, from the evening she enrolled in a poetry workshop offered by the Boston Center for Adult Education. The teacher was John Holmes, a member of the senior faculty at Tufts University, who supplemented his income by offering instruction in writing to the "nontraditional" types who enroll in adult education courses. Holmes was warm and unintimidating as a teacher. What Sexton derived from the class, however, was not simply how to tell a good poem from a bad poem. Attempting to characterize this period of her life for an interviewer, Sexton drew an analogy between Holmes's poetry class and the mental hospital.
I started in the middle of the term, very shy, writing very bad poems, solemnly handing them in for the eighteen others in the class to hear. The most important aspect of that class was that I felt I belonged somewhere. When I first got sick and became a displaced person, I thought I was quite alone, but when I went into the mental hospital, I found I wasn't, that there were other people like me. It made me feel better—more real, sane. I felt, "These are my people." Well, at the John Holmes class that I attended for two years, I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there, and I had another, "These are my people."
Working out the implications of this association between the hospital and class provides a way of understanding some of the social significance of Sexton's art.
Until diagnosed as mentally ill, Sexton had been regarded by her exasperated family as childish, selfish, incompetent. Her mother-in-law remembered the shock with which she first watched Sexton throw herself, pounding and screaming, on the floor because she was enraged at being asked to do an errand. Later, Sexton's anger sometimes threatened the safety of her young children; Linda Sexton indicates that the poem "Red Roses" (in the posthumously published 45 Mercy Street) recreates such an incident. But in the hospital, removed from the dynamics of family life, Sexton assumed another identity. As a madwoman she was a member of a distinct social class. Even the forms of her suffering, symptomatic of the disease she embodied, were not unique but generic. Most important for her later development, in the hospital she was given a hearing by therapists trained to decode her symptoms and clarify their function in her life. And she found herself in a social group that used language in a special way, to communicate indirectly.
Years after this first hospitalization, Sexton described the discovery—"I thought I was quite alone, but [ … ] I found I wasn't"—to a psychiatrist friend:
It is hard to define. When I was first sick I was thrilled [ … ] to get into the Nut House. At first, of course, I was just scared and crying and very quiet (who me!) but then I found this girl (very crazy of course) (like me I guess) who talked language. What a relief! I mean, well … someone! And then later, a while later, and quite a while, I found out that [Dr.] Martin talked language. [ … ] By the way, [husband] Kayo has never once understood one word of language. [Letters, p. 244]
By "language," Sexton seems to mean forms of speech in which meaning is condensed and indirect and where breaks and gaps demand as much interpretation as what is voiced. Schizophrenics use language this way, and so do poets: "figurative language" is the term Sexton might have used here, except she meant to indicate that the crucible of formation was urgent need. Being permitted to communicate in "language" made her feel "real"—unlike the speech transactions of family life, which made her feel doll-like:
Someone pretends with me—
I am walled in solid by their noise—
or puts me upon their straight bed.
They think I am me!
Their warmth is not a friend!
They pry my mouth for their cups of grin
and their stale bread.
Psychotherapy following hospitalization, further developing the sense of liberation achieved in the hospital, provided Sexton with a form of education. Intensive scrutiny of her illness introduced her, haphazardly but usefully, to the theory of psychoanalysis, techniques of association, and an arena in which to display her verbal cunning. Equally important, it freed her from confinement in the family. Demonstrably unfit for the occupation of housewife and mother, Sexton turned to other work. And because she had the good fortune to live in Greater Boston, she found her way, merely by enrolling, into another social group that spoke "language": "I found I belonged to the poets, that I was real there."
Boston in the late 1950s was full of poets. "Being a ‘poet’ in Boston is not so difficult," Anne Sexton wrote Carolyn Kizer in February 1959, "except there are hoards of us living here. The place is jammed with good writers" (Letters, p. 56). Such abundance offered numerous advantages to the apprentice. Many well-known writers taught workshops that carried no academic prerequisites. In few places outside Boston might a professor of poetry like I. A. Richards have found an audience for lectures on the sonnet, or a TV station to air them. Both the teacher and Sexton's fellow students at the Boston Center for Adult Education reflected the exceptional literacy of Greater Boston. In John Holmes's class Sexton met Maxine Kumin, a Radcliffe graduate who had decided after some years of motherhood to return to serious writing. Kumin's career was to flourish in tandem with Sexton's, each eventually receiving the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
It was part of Sexton's transformative good luck, I think, that she found both the instruction and, later, the academic credentials she needed without passing through the advantaged but in important ways—for poets—repressive educational systems that shaped the early work of her Boston cohorts, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath. Rigorous academic training of the period led young poets to imitate the masters of the British tradition, particularly the metaphysical poets and the intensely intellectual modernists. The early writings of both Plath and Rich indicate that they were excellent students, striving for correctness in these modes. As strong poets, and like men who became strong poets under the same academic influences, Plath and Rich survived this academic phase by growing out of it; in their characteristic mature work, the mannerisms of their early models have disappeared. In the realm of the university, however, not only were their literary models intellectual men, but their teachers and lovers were too, and the best women students tended to marry them and then vanish into the underclass of academic life.
Sexton avoided this common predicament of her contemporaries, paradoxically, by marrying young. Having no further academic ambitions after finishing high school, she went on to the Garland School in Boston, where girls were taught home management. She eloped within a few months. Her struggles to mature during the early years of marriage and motherhood took place almost completely within an extended family; her husband was frequently absent on business, and both parents and in-laws were important, frequently intrusive, presences. The illnesses from which she suffered throughout her adult life burgeoned in this context of censorious parental scrutiny. Problematic as her family relations were, however, they formed a different universe of concern from the one she entered as an apprentice to poetry and did not impede her development once she found her way out of the house. She turned from sufferer into poet, a social role different altogether ….
Source: Diane Wood Middlebrook, "Housewife into Poet: The Apprenticeship of Anne Sexton," in New England Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, December 1983, pp. 483-503.
Dickey, James, Review of All My Pretty Ones, in Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale, edited by Steven E. Colburn, University of Michigan Press, 1988, p. 106; originally published in the New York Times Book review, April 28, 1963.
Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, Hogarth, 1958, Vol. IV, pp. v-338, Vol. V, pp. 339-627.
Gardiner, Muriel, ed., The Wolf-Man, Basic Books, 1971, pp. 173-91.
Gennep, Arnold van, The Rites of Passage, translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Cafee, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960, pp. 65-115.
George, Diana Hume, Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 114, 115.
Gill, Jo, Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics, University of Florida Press, 2007, pp. 56-82.
Loftus, Elizabeth F., "The Reality of Repressed Memories," in American Psychologist, Vol. 48, 1993, pp. 518-37, http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/lof93.htm (accessed August 28, 2008).
Lowell, Robert, Life Studies, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1959, pp. 145- 60.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood, Anne Sexton: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin, 1961, pp. 56, 59, 61, 62, 63, 166.
———, Review of Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems, in Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale, edited by Steven E. Colburn, University of Michigan Press, 1988, pp. 447-70; originally published in Parnassus, Vol. 12, 1985, pp. 2-13.
Sexton, Anne, "Young," in All My Pretty Ones, Houghton Mifflin, 1962, p. 6.
———, The Complete Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 51.
Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir, Methuen, 1982, p. 135.
Berlin, Richard M., ed., Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Berlin presents a collection of essays each dealing with the use of poetry and other art forms in contemporary psychotherapy.
Furst, Arthur, Anne Sexton: The Last Summer, St. Martin's, 2000.
This book presents a collection of photographs Furst took of Sexton beginning from the time he met and befriended her in April 1974, shortly after one of her failed suicide attempts, until her death in October.
Hall, Caroline King Barnard, Anne Sexton, Twayne, 1989.
Hall presents a comprehensive critical and biographical treatment of Sexton, aimed at a student audience.
Phillips, Robert S., The Confessional Poets, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
This work is the first monograph on the confessional poets as a group, written just as their movement began to fragment.
Sexton, Anne, No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn, University of Michigan Press, 1985.
This anthology not only collects the most important of Sexton's essays but also contains extensive interviews with her.
Young, family of English singers:
(1)Cecilia Young, soprano; b. London (baptized), Feb. 7,1712; d. there, Oct. 6,1789. She was a student of Geminiani. On March 4, 1730, she made her first public appearance at a benefit concert at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. In 1732-33 she began singing in English operas by Lampe and Smith, and in 1735 Handel engaged her for the premieres of his Ariodante and Alcina. In 1737 she married Thomas Augustine Arne, and subsequently sang in his works in London. In 1742 she and her husband visited Dublin, where she sang in the first performances of his oratorio The Death of Abel on Feb. 18, 1744. They returned to Dublin in 1755, being accompanied by Arne’s gifted student, Charlotte Brent. By then Young and Arne’s marriage had become tempestuous, and Arne and Brent returned to London, leaving his wife in the company of her young niece, Polly Young. In 1762 Young and her niece returned to London. Young and her husband were reconciled shortly before his death in 1778.
(2)Isabella Young, soprano, sister of the preceding; b. London, date unknown; d. there, 1795. After singing minor roles at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1733-34, she appeared in concerts. On May 10, 1737, she created the role of Margery in John Frederick Lampe’s The Dragon ofWantley in London, and soon became his wife. Thereafter she appeared in all of his operas. In 1748 they went to Dublin, where Young sang at the Smock Alley Theatre. In 1750 they proceeded to Edinburgh. After her husband’s death in 1751, she returned to London and sang at Covent Garden.
(3)Esther Young, contralto, sister of the two preceding; b. London, Feb. 14, 1717; d. there (buried), June 6, 1795. She began her career as a concert singer in 1736. On May 10,1737, she created the role of Mauxalinda in Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley in London, and subsequently sang in other operas by him. In 1744 she sang Juno and Ino in the first performance of Handel’s Semele in London. She appeared frequently at Covent Garden until 1776. Her best known role was Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera.
(4)Isabella Young, mezzo-soprano, niece of (1) Cecilia Young; b. probably in London, date unknown; d. there, Aug. 17, 1791. She was a student of Waltz. In March 1751 she made her debut in a concert with Waltz in London. Arne engaged her to sing in his operas in 1754. From 1755 to 1777 she appeared frequently at London’s Drury Lane Theater. She also sang in Handel’s works from 1756 until his death in 1759. Young was best known as a concert and oratorio artist.
(5)Elizabeth Young, contralto, sister of the preceding; b. probably in London, date unknown; d. there, April 12,1773. She sang in Arne’s works in Dublin and in London in 1756. In 1758 she appeared as Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera in London. She sang frequently at London’s Drury Lane Theatre until 1772.
(6)Polly Young, soprano, sister of the two preceding; b. London, c. 1749; d. there, Sept. 20,1799. She was taken to Dublin as a child by the Arnes, and began singing in public when she was 6. After appearing as both an actress and a singer, she returned to London and sang at Covent Garden from 1762 to 1764. She appeared in minor roles at the King’s Theatre from 1764 until her marriage to François-Hippolyte Barthélémon in 1766. Thereafter they appeared in concerts in London, Ireland, and on the Continent.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
young / yəng/ • adj. (young·er , young·est ) having lived or existed for only a short time: a young girl| [as pl. n.] (the young) the young are amazingly resilient. ∎ not as old as the norm or as would be expected: more people were dying young. ∎ relating to, characteristic of, or consisting of young people: young love the Young Communist League. ∎ immature or inexperienced: she's very young for her age. ∎ having the qualities popularly associated with young people, such as enthusiasm and optimism: all those who are young at heart. ∎ (the Younger) used to denote the younger of two people of the same name: Pitt the Younger. ∎ (younger) Scot. denoting the heir of a landed commoner: Hugh Magnus Macleod, younger of Macleod. • n. [treated as pl.] offspring, esp. of an animal before or soon after birth: this species carries its young. PHRASES: with young (of an animal) pregnant.DERIVATIVES: young·ish / ˈyəngish/ adj.
a young man married is a young man marred proverbial saying, late 16th century, often used as an argument against marrying too young.
young men may die, but old men must die proverbial saying, mid 16th century, meaning that death is inevitable for all, and can at best be postponed until old age.
Young Pretender a name for Charles Edward Stuart (1720–80), as son of the Old Pretender; the name is first recorded from 1745 (the year of the second Jacobite Rising).
young saint, old devil proverbial saying, early 15th century; meaning that unnaturally good and moral behaviour at an early age is likely to change in later life.
Young Turk a member of a revolutionary party in the Ottoman Empire who carried out the revolution of 1908 and deposed the sultan Abdul Hamid II; in extended usage, a young person eager for radical change to the established order.
See also angry young man, those whom the gods love die young, the good die young, hang a thief when he's young, you cannot put an old head on young shoulders.
Hence youngling young person. OE. ġeongling = OS. jungling, OHG. jungaling, ON. ynglingr; see -LING1. youngster young person. XVI; see -STER.