Allusion is so often used by modern authors that it has become rather difficult to read their works in the absence of annotations. However, as you will see in the 10 examples below, it has been a favorite literary device of poets for many centuries past—especially of the ones who wanted to add some depth to their poems. Judging by the length of our clarifications—they most certainly did!
10 Examples of Allusion in Poetry
Example #1: Actium · Egypt’s Queen
Through cloudless skies, in silvery sheen,
Full beams the moon on Actium‘s coast:
And on these waves, for Egypt’s queen,
The ancient world was won and lost.
And now upon the scene I look,
The azure grave of many a Roman;
Where stern Ambition once forsook
His wavering crown to follow woman.
– Lord George Gordon Byron, “Stanzas Written in Passing the Ambracian Gulf” 1-8 (1809)
Egypt’s queen is, of course, Cleopatra—but that’s only one of the few interrelated allusions these two stanzas are thickened with, the identification of which is a prerequisite to understanding the whole poem. “The ancient world was won and lost” for her, because it was her beauty that incited one of Rome’s three heads of state, Marc Antony, to side with Cleopatra and wage a war against his fellow-ruler, Octavian, to whose sister he was married. Actium was the site where Octavian won the decisive victory over Antony and Cleopatra; legend holds it that this happened only after Mark Antony steered his ship away from the battle—thus, causing confusion among his soldiers—with an intention to console the distraught and fleeing Cleopatra. And even “stern Ambition” is an allusion here, in this case to Shakespeare’s famous line “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff,” uttered by none other than Marc Antony in his funeral oration in the third act of Shakespeare’s 1599 tragedy, Julius Caesar (III.2.93)!
Example #2: Belial
Or my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial‘s gripe.
– Robert Browning, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” VIII.1-4 (1842)
Belial is a Hebrew compound word which etymologically means “no thriving,” or, simpler, “without value,” “worthless.” Mentioned 27 times in the Bible, at a later date, this common noun came to designate a personification of wickedness and evil, the archetypal demon, Satan—as evidenced by this verse from The New Testament: “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” (2 Corinthians 6:15). Milton uses it in this latter sense, describing the demon Belial as “than whom a Spirit more lewd / Fell not from Heaven” (Paradise Lost I.490-491), as does Browning’s Spanish monk in the excerpt above, fearing that a mere glance at a decadent French novel would put him under the spell of the Devil.
Example #3: Dulce et Decorum Est
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
– Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est” 25-28 (1920)
These are the closing lines of Wilfried Owen’s famous anti-war poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est” written shortly before he was killed in the final week of the First World ar. Owen’s poem describes the horrors of a gas attack, and ends with an ironic twist on an oft-quoted verse by ancient Roman poet Horace; this can be roughly translated from Latin as “How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country” (Odes III.2.13). Alluding once again to Horace, Ezra Pound made the irony even more explicit in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: “Died some, pro patria, non ‘dulce’ non ‘et decor’” (I.4.10), i.e. they died, for their country, neither beautifully nor with honours.
Example #4: Dust to Dust
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
– Henry Wadsforth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life” 5-8 (1839)
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” a phrase taken from the Book of Common Prayer and frequently spoken at funeral services, originates, unsurprisingly, from the Bible, where it appears in various different forms in Genesis, Job, and Isaiah. The most famous one—”for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19)—is alluded to almost verbatim in the second stanza of Longfellow’s optimistic “Psalm of Life.” According to the poet, though the sentence may be true for the body, it is not for the soul; so, “let us, then, be up and doing” he invitingly summons us in the final stanza, “with a heart for any fate.”
Example #5: If Thy Right Eye Offend Thee
If it chance your eye offend you,
Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:
‘Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,
And many a balsam grows on ground.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
When your sickness is your soul.
– A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad XLV (1896)
Staying with the Bible: the first two verses of this brief but highly personal and painful Housman’s poem refer to Matthew 5:29. Specifically, to the King James Version: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” However, Housman was a homosexual, which, according to the Bible, is a sickness of the soul; as far as he can see, the only solution in his case—lest he wants to cast into hell—would be a suicide.
Example #6: Hippocrene
O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
– John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” II.5-10 (1819)
Supposedly created when Pegasus—another symbol of poetic creativity—dug his hooves into the ground, Hippocrene was the spring of inspiration, flowing on Mount Helicon in Boeotia, which, appropriately, was believed to be the home of the Muses, the inspirational goddesses. In the verses above (and those which precede them), Keats skillfully compares Hippocrene’s powers with the powers of Southern wines—apparently, both can help one forget his problems and “leave the world unseen.”
Example #7: Midas Touch
So twenty years, with their hopes and fears and smiles and tears and such,
Went by and left me long bereft of hope of the Midas touch.
– Robert Service, “The Ballad of One-Eyed Mike” 14-15 (1909)
After entertaining the lost satyr Silenus for ten days and bringing him back to his foster son, Dionysius, on the eleventh day, Midas was granted by the grateful wine-god one wish. He asked that everything he might touch should turn into gold. The gift soon developed into a curse when Midas realized that even his food and drink turned to gold at his touch; however, the phrase “Midas touch”—or, alternatively, “golden touch”—has mainly positive connotations, and is used to describe someone’s ability to turn everything into a success.
Example #8: Pierian Spring
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism 218-219 (1711)
Just like Hippocrene above, the Pierian spring of Macedonia was sacred to the Muses, and, thus, was considered a source of knowledge and memory. Many ancient writers mention it, but the above two verses by Pope are the ones which made it famous. They imply that far worse than knowing nothing is knowing something: the former is easily discernible, but the latter is not, making it a pretty “dangerous thing.” If you want to learn why, google for Dunning-Kruger effect, which, in layman terms, is sometimes justly described as “the confident idiot” syndrome.
Example #9: Priscian · Pegasus
Some free from rhyme or reason, rule or check,
Break Priscian’s head and Pegasus’s neck.
– Alexander Pope, The Dunciad III.155-156 (1728)
Alexander Pope’s poetry is so allusive and dense with classical references that we had to include him twice in our list. Here, he uses two striking metaphors in the second verse of the couplet above to reiterate the things said in the first one. Priscianus Caesariensis—or Priscian, for short—was a Latin grammarian and the author of the standard textbook of Latin during the Middle Ages; Pegasus, on the other hand, is a winged horse who often symbolizes the power of inspiration and poetry. Thus, breaking Priscian’s head means breaking the rules of grammar; and breaking Pegasus’s neck would lead to terminating your flight on the wings of inspiration and plummeting earthward instead.
Example #10: Scarlet Sin
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’
– Hilaire Belloc, “On His Books” (1925)
The phrase “scarlet sin” comes from a Bible verse describing the immeasurable scope of divine forgiveness: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). By implication, a “scarlet sin” is the worst kind of sin, one that, just like the colour scarlet, is easily perceptible even at a first glance. The ones who want to get even more specific, deem only adultery and prostitution as scarlet sins, probably because of the description of The Great Harlot in The Book of Revelation (17:3-4): she sits upon a “scarlet-coloured beast” and is “arrayed in purple and scarlet.” Now, we don’t know exactly which sins Belloc has in mind in this premature epitaph, but he obviously cares about them being known to others less than he does about his books being read after his death. (Worry not, Hilaire: they are!)