Let's begin by defining the word “archetype.” In literature, an archetype is a character, an image, a symbol, an event, a setting, or a pattern that appears again and again throughout many eras and genres to express a particular meaning. With this definition in mind, let's look for some archetypes in Louise Bogan's poem “Medusa.”
Medusa herself is an archetypal figure. With her snakes for hair and her ability to turn people to stone, she appears over and over as a symbol, perhaps, of paralyzing fear. We catch a glimpse of her in the poem, through a window and a door, yet she is different somehow. Her eyes are bare and stiff. It seems that she herself has been turned to stone.
Yet she seems to still retain her power to terrify and freeze her victims, and even more than ever before. The speaker looks upon a “dead scene.” “Nothing will ever stir,” she says. There is a bell that is tipped but will never sound. The water holds steady in mid air. The grass will always be the same. The dust will not blow. Even the speaker herself becomes frozen in time, standing like a shadow, never to move again.
We can see several other archetypes in this description. The bell, for instance, often appears as a sign of greeting or alarm, but here it will never ring again. The water, an archetype that suggests constant motion and change as well as cleansing, is now perfectly still, always falling yet never falling. The grass, an archetype of life, will always be growing but never grow. These archetypes are all turned upside down to help capture the absolute stillness of the scene. There is a hopelessness here, a lack of fulfillment, and that is the poet's point. Sometimes people get to a place in their lives in which they feel exactly like this, like everything is at a standstill and going nowhere, like Medusa herself has frozen them in place.