Friday, December 31, 2010

Old Men and Babies

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Good literature is like a set of nesting dolls. The large, outer doll is the story itself. It provides shape and boundaries. Inside that doll is a smaller one that seems to be identical except, of course, in size, and inside the second is a third and fourth, each one slightly smaller than the one before. Like characters and conflicts, the dolls complement each other, each component essential to the experience of discovery as we readers turn page after page.

Archetypal patterns, including character, quests, and symbols, are the designs on the dolls. Good writers challenge us with complex, intricate designs, using simple, archetypal tools. Clever readers observe the designs as they peel back the layers of each doll, enjoying the familiar patterns that have been woven to create a new whole, anticipating the overall meaning that awaits when the last doll is revealed.

On December 31, let us now consider the overall meanings associated with two more simple archetypal symbols: old men and babies, also known as Father Time and New Year. Revelers and readers are familiar with these iconic symbols for the old year giving way to the new, but great writers elaborate upon the simple symbols, using them to jar our imaginations and provide new perspectives for us to consider.

William Shakespeare weaves images of the old giving way into his Sonnet 73, and in so doing, he creates a portrait of love. He writes:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 4
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 8
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by. 12
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


In the first quatrain, the speaker compares his life-stage to late Fall. He exists in a time when few leaves hang upon the boughs and the birds have flown south, their songs no longer heard among the trees.

In the second quatrain, the speaker associates his age with the end of a day. He dwells in twilight that will soon give way to black night, a natural mirror image for death itself for like death, night is the time for rest.

The third quatrain equates the speaker’s life to a fire that, in youth, blazed bright and warm. Now, however, only embers glow upon a deep bed of ash, the ashes that will soon suffocate the embers.

In the final couplet, the reader learns that the speaker’s beloved beholds (1) and sees (5, 9) Father Time’s grip. The beloved knows that the lovers’ time together is brief; thus, love grows stronger.



Charles Dickens, in Dombey and Son, opens his novel with images of Father Time and New Year:

DOMBEY sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new. Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time--remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go--while the countenance of Son was crossed and recrossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.

Dickens uses the iconic Time, scythe in hand, to suggest that Dombey, at 48, is already care-worn whereas Son is yet unaware of the knicks and scars ahead of him. Son’s tomorrow has yet to be written; his father’s book is already thick and will sooner come to its end.



In The Poisonwood Bible, Adah observes that, “The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep." This oblique reference to Father Time, to the “whips and scorns of time” (Shakespeare, Hamlet), and to the quid pro quo of sovereignty calls to mind the brutal truth that all living things give way. New Year and new life will also age and fade.





We hope for the best when new life or a new year begins. We imagine that dreams will come true, that promises will be kept, that love will thrive, and that tragedy will recede. Thus, when authors introduce babies and spring, they count on our emotional investment and often play against our expectations to surprise us or even shock us. Sharon Olds does this in a poem entitled “Rite of Passage:”

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.


We readers expect children of six and seven to still have smooth foreheads. No care or worry has scarred them--except, these boys lack the innocence we expect. They care deeply about power and hierarchy. They exist in a world that prepares them for combat.



So, dear reader, when you read of an old man or babies, consider them as icons, as archetypal symbols, then evaluate the writer’s use of them. In each writer’s design is a theme, one that enriches our understanding of old and new, age and youth, past and present.

Reading Challenge:


Read any one or all of the works listed in this blog. You may also wish to read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In it, you will find humor, insight, and tools to help you analyze archetypes of all kinds.



Writing Challenge:

Search your writing journals for a story about the old giving way to the new. Turn your journal entry into a “fabulous reality,” using the iconic symbols of old (idea, year, age) yielding to the new (idea, year or phase).

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):


Costello once asked Abbot who’s on first? The correct answer is Who--Who is on first [base], but Costello cannot make the leap from the interrogative who to the word used as a surname so he remains confused. The comic bit is classic, still very funny, and available online. Enjoy, and while you do, remember that two versions of who’s exist: who’s, the contraction, and whose, the possessive. Some of my former students seemed to have lost track of the distinctions between the two parts of speech and the correct way to spell each. Try to avoid their mistakes.

Who’s = who is or who was; e. g., Who’s invited to John’s party?

Whose = the possessive form of who; e. g., Whose party is this invitation for? John’s!