Can you find figurative language in "Sugar Mountain" by Neil Young, and allusion in "Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One way in which figurative language can be found in Young's "Sugar Mountain" can be found in the backstory behind the song.  Joni Mitchell provides insight as to the use of figurative language in Young's song:

In 1965 I was up in Canada, and there was a friend of mine up there who had just left a rock'n'roll band (...) he had just newly turned 21, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favourite haunt, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you're over 21 you couldn't get back in there anymore; so he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends and everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know, but it's one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn't play in this club anymore. 'Cause he was over the hill. (...) So he wrote this song that was called "Oh to live on sugar mountain" which was a lament for his lost youth.

Mitchell's insight into Young's song helps establish how figurative language is used to communicate a "lament for his lost youth."  This can be seen in different portions of the song.  The song's chorus features the use of symbolism:  "You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain/ Though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon/ You're leaving there too soon."  In this use of symbolic language, Sugar Mountain is an ideal of that which is gone, seen in the idea of leaving it too soon.  The imagery of youth can also be seen in the song's employment of the fair and the "friends" that happen to be there.  The use of a carnival atmosphere, something where happiness is transcendent and beyond temporality is reflective of figurative language that communicates how the revelry of youth comes to an end.  A symbolic hyperbole of young love, and the innocence within it, can be seen in the mid- point of Young's song:

There's a girl just down the aisle
Oh to turn and see her smile
You can hear the words she wrote
As you read the hidden note

The "hidden note" is an image of youth, as well as the idea that to go back into the past is a portal that one cannot reenter once its time has elapsed.  Finally, there is a symbolism behind "home" when Young writes, "Now you say you're leaving' home/ 'Cause you want to be alone."  For Young, the imagery of home is reflective of a time that is gone and a feeling long since departed with it. There is a sense of mourning and loss which is evident in the song, something communicated through the use of figurative language.

Both "Sugar Mountain" and "The Circle Game" are inextricably linked to one another.  In understanding the allusions that Mitchell composes in "The Circle Game," expansion of the initial backstory can help to establish a basic understanding:

(...) And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, that's a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope. It's called The Circle Game.

Whereas "Sugar Mountain" emphasizes through figurative language the mournful passing of time, "The Circle Game" contains allusions that emphasize how maturation and growth do not have to be synonymous with complete and abject loss.  One such allusion in the song is the allusion to the carnival feeling that is established in "Sugar Mountain."  Young's idea of a "fair" is alluded to in Mitchell's "carousel."  For Young, the carousel is reflective of a "carousel of time" that goes around and around, defining one's being in the world.  In this allusion, the fairgrounds are not automatically joyous.  Rather, they show and reflect what it is to hurt and to feel pain, as communicated in the song. Mitchell creates an allusion to her own song, "Both Sides Now" in the construction of a narrative from youth to adulthood.  In both songs, the narrative of the human experience starts with youthful innocence and transitions to the experience of adulthood.  In the song's line of "When you're older, you must appease him," there is a direct allusion to the world of responsibility and even to a divine force, reflective of how the boy understands that his own vision is secondary to something larger as he gets older.  The song alludes to the adolescent rite of passage in driving when the boy moves from "cartwheels to car wheels," another means through which Mitchell is able to communicate the maturation experience.  Finally, the allusion to the carnival and the carousel element can be seen in the closing line of the song when Mitchell writes "before the last revolving year is through."  In this allusion is the idea that age is not a door closing, but rather one that opens and what the individual chooses to do as they pass through such a portal is how identity is formed.

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