Allusion can be defined as a casual reference to a person or a thing which adds extra meaning to the neighboring context. In other words, merely saying “The Good Samaritan is a character in a parable told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke” is not an allusion—it is merely a straightforward reference. However, it is an allusion when, for example, Julia says to Edward in T.S Eliot’s comedy The Cocktail Party (I.2.49-50): “Don’t you realise how lucky you are/ To have two Good Samaritans?”
Allusions are, by definition, indirect. That means that they are never explicitly clarified by the author and that they work pretty much like riddles: it is left to the reader to both identify them and make the connection to a previous text. However, sometimes this process can prove especially tricky.
For example, Alexander Pope’s verses are densely allusive, filled with both classical and topical references that can’t be understood without some proper help from a specialized scholar. Moreover, modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound consciously strove to enrich their writings with obscure, esoteric and personal allusions, the understanding of which is frequently essential to understanding the meaning of the works as a whole.
In some cases, allusions may even have a structural significance: James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, for example, is modeled after Homer’s epic Odyssey and can’t be sufficiently made sense of without it.
Allusion in a Sentence
Example #1: Achilles’ Heel
Divorce is the Achilles’ heel of marriage.
– George Bernard Shaw, Letters (July 2, 1965)
According to a story in Greek mythology, in an attempt to make her son immortal, the sea nymph Thetis washed the baby Achilles in the waters of the infernal river Styx. However, as she was doing this, she held him by his heel, which remained the only vulnerable place on her son’s body. This would prove a fatal mistake, since, late in the Trojan War, an arrow fired by the Trojan prince Paris and guided by Apollo, pierced through the heel of Achilles, killing the great Achaean hero on the spot. In the 19th century, the phrase “Achilles’ heel” was first used to mean a weak spot in spite of overall strength—and George Bernard Shaw wittily plays with this meaning in his clever remark above.
Example #2: Janus
A friend is Janus-faced: he looks to the past and the future. He is the child of all my foregoing hours, the prophet of those to come.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship” (1841)
Janus was an ancient Roman deity, worshipped as a guardian of doors and gates, and as a god of transitions, beginnings and endings. He was depicted as having two faces—one looking back and another forward—and this is what Ralph Waldo Emerson alludes to in the sentences above, describing a friend as someone who is both an indelible part of one’s past and an architect of his or her future.
Example #3: Panglossian
Many searchers for life beyond Earth seem to be possessed of an almost Panglossian optimism, and since their speculations include the entire universe, their optimism might seem justified.
– Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2000
Dr. Pangloss is a character in Voltaire’s 1759 satirical masterpiece Candide. A professor of “metaphysico-theologo-cosmoronology” he is a self-proclaimed optimist who firmly believes that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds” and that “all is for the best.” He remains convinced in the veracity of his beliefs even after countless misfortunes, which cost him an eye and an ear due to syphilis, and, at one point, even his freedom. Because of this, when someone is Panglossian, he or she is overly—and naively—optimistic.
(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Allusion in a Sentence)
Allusion in Poetry
Example #1: Dead Sea Fruits
May Life’s unblessed cup for him
Be drugg’d with treacheries to the brim,
With hopes that but allure to fly,
With joys that vanish while he sips,
Like Dead-Sea fruits, that tempt the eye,
But turn to ashes on the lips!
– Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh (1817)
A Dead Sea fruit—sometimes also called a Sodom apple—is, according to the legend, a tempting fruit which dissolves into smoke and ashes once touched. Thomas Moore must have considered the allusion somewhat obscure when he wrote the above stanza in 1817 because he decided to annotate it himself, quoting a sentence by French explorer Jean de Thévenot as an explanation: “They say that there are apple-trees upon the sides of this sea, which bear very lovely fruit, but within are full of ashes.” A Dead Sea fruit is now used as an allusion to anything which may look promising at first but ultimately brings disappointment and discontent.
Example #2: Gehenna
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
– Rudyard Kipling, “The Winners” (1890)
Gehenna—or, literally translated, the “Valley of (the Son of) Hinnom”—is a place in Jerusalem, where, according to the Old Testament, worshippers of the pagan gods Baal and Moloch sacrificed their children by fire: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal” (Jeremiah 19:5). In time, the term came to symbolize Hell itself, so much so that the name given to Hell in the Quran, Jahannam, is a direct derivation of Gehenna. Additionally, the phrase “go to Gehenna” can be used as a more esoteric alternative to the everyday expression “go to hell.”
Example #3: The Mad Hatter
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
– T. S. Eliot, “The Naming of Cats” 1-4 (1939)
As almost everybody knows, the Mad Hatter is a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the eccentric host of one of the craziest tea parties you can ever imagine, also attended by the March Hare and the Dormouse. However, the phrases “mad as a hatter” and “mad as a (March) hare” predate Carroll’s book. According to OED, the first of these two expressions may refer to “the effects of mercury poisoning formerly suffered by hat-makers as a result of the use of mercurous nitrate in the manufacture of felt hats.” Ultimately, however, it’s irrelevant which of these sources is alluded to by T.S. Eliot in the stanza above—the meaning is immediately clear either way.
Example #4: Paris · Menelaus · Troy
I will be Paris and, for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sacked;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest.
– Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus V.1.98-101 (1592)
This is what Doctor Faustus says to a summoned infernal spirit who has assumed the shape of Helen in the fifth act of Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy. The wife of Menelaus, Helen was a Spartan princess who was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris—an event which triggered the Trojan War. Doctor Faustus reimagines himself as Helen’s lover and, in a trance, rewrites parts of the original story: in Homer’s Iliad, it is Paris who is unskilled and cowardly, and Menelaus an epitome of bravery. A few verses above this passage, Marlowe describes Helen’s face as one “that launch’d a thousand ships,/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?,” a phrase which has been alluded to numerous times ever since.
Example #5: The Trojan War · Helen and Clytemnestra
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
– William Butler Yeats, “Leda and the Swan” 9-11 (1923)
As you can read in the example above, Yeats finds an even more implicit way to allude to some of the people and events Christopher Marlowe calls into mind in Doctor Faustus. His sonnet “Leda and the Swan” vividly describes how Zeus, disguised as a swan, rapes Leda, the Queen of Sparta. From this union, Helen and Clytemnestra were subsequently born, the former responsible for the Trojan War (“the broken wall, the burning roof and tower”) and the latter the murderer of the Achaean leader (“And Agamemnon dead”). Thus, the three verses above hide allusions within allusions: by referring to the consequences (the Trojan War and the death of Agamemnon), Yeats actually alludes to the causes (Helen and Clytemnestra) without even using their names.
(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Allusion in Poetry)
Allusion in Literature
Example #1: Gargantua
You must borrow me Gargantua’s mouth first. ‘Tis a word too great for any mouth of this age’s size.
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It III.2.221 (1599)
This is what Celia replies to Rosalind in Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It, after the latter asks to answer her “in one word” a host of Orlando-related questions. (“What did he when thou saw’st him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes him here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again?”) The meaning of the sentence is clear as it is, but it becomes even more palpable once you learn that Gargantua is a giant, the title protagonist in François Rabelais’ satirical pentalogy of novels, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel.
Example #2: Methuselah
Now, you are my witness, Miss Summerson, I say I don’t care—but if he was to come to our house with his great, shining, lumpy forehead night after night till he was as old as Methuselah, I wouldn’t have anything to say to him.
– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
The son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah, Methuselah is the oldest man mentioned in the Bible; Genesis 5:27 claims that he lived to be 969 years. Consequently, the word Methuselah is now almost synonymous with longevity, and is often used to mean “extremely aged” or “ancient.” The phrase “as old as Methuselah” is also regularly used.
Example #3: Procrustean Bed
‘The measures, then,’ he continued, ‘were good in their kind, and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case, and to the man. A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he.
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter” (1845)
Procrustes—literally, “The Stretcher”—was a street bandit in Greek mythology famous for the eccentricity of his modus operandi. Namely, he first invited travelers to lie on an iron bed he held in his possession, and, then, in an attempt to force them to fit the length of the bed, he either stretched them (if they were short) or cut off their legs (if they were longer than his bed). The adjective “procrustean” refers to this act, and means enforcing conformity through ruthless measures which disregard individual differences.
(Further Reading: Top 10 Allusion Examples in Literature)
Songs with Assonance
Example #1: The Cure, Killing an Arab (1979)
Standing on the beach
With a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand
Staring down the barrel
At the Arab on the ground
I can see his open mouth
But I hear no sound
I’m the stranger
Killing an Arab
Released a few days before the end of 1978, Killing an Arab was the controversial debut single of The Cure. As Robert Smith explains in a 1991 interview, the song “is a short poetic attempt at condensing [his] impression of the key moments in The Stranger by Albert Camus”—explicitly referenced in the chorus quoted above. However, the allusion was lost to many, leading to many accusations that Killing an Arab is a racist song which promotes violence against Arabs. As a result of the hostile response, The Cure rarely play the song even today; and when they do, they modify the last verse of the chorus to either “Killing another” or “Killing an Ahab.” And yes—the latter is another example of literary allusion!
Example #2: Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah (1984)
Well, your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to the kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips, she drew the Hallelujah
The second stanza of Leonard Cohen’s most covered song, Hallelujah, skillfully merges two biblical accounts. In the first three verses, it alludes to the story of David and Bathsheba, and the moment the Jewish king falls in love with the wife of Uriah the Hittite: “One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful” (2 Samuel 11:2). Furthermore, the second three verses refer to the story of Samson, an Israelite of enormous strength, who lost all of it after his lover Delilah betrayed him and cut his hair (Judges 13-16). However, Cohen subverts the climax of this story, portraying the emasculated Samson/David not as a bitter man, but one ready to greet his defeat with a “Hallelujah.”
Example #3: Frank Turner, 1933 (2018)
The first time it was a tragedy
The second time is a farce
Outside it’s 1933 so I’m hitting the bar.
Written—by his own admission—during the U.S. election campaign of 2016, 1933 refers, both in the title and in the last verse of the pre-chorus excerpted above, to the year when the Nazis came to power in Germany. In Turner’s opinion, something similar is happening around us at the moment. (The chorus states this explicitly: “I don’t know what’s going on anymore/ The world outside is burning with a brand-new light/ But it isn’t one that makes me feel warm.”) To point out how farcical this all seems, he alludes to a famous Karl Marx observation in the first two verses above. It can be found in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and, originally, it goes something like this: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
(Further Reading: Top 5 Songs with Allusion)