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.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Anne Sexton, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009