Have you ever read a poem where the writer makes a reference to a person, place, thing, or event? If so, then you’ve most certainly stumbled across an allusion! This lesson explains what an allusion is, how it’s used, and explores various examples of the literary device.

Just a Casual Mention

Have you ever read a story or poem where the author did a lot of name-dropping? Perhaps she casually mentioned another writer or a historical figure. Maybe he quickly referenced some event from the past or a seemingly random place in a distant land. In the literary world, these brief and casual mentions are called allusions.

As a rule, allusions are very brief references in a poem or other text that do not get much explanation from the author. Sometimes, allusions are direct, and the author directs the reader’s attention to something very specific. In other instances, an allusion may be indirect. The mention is so casual and so subtle that the reader may not even pick up on it! Allusions can take many forms. Commonly, authors will allude to:

  • Historical people, places, events, and things
  • Mythology
  • The Bible
  • Other poems, literary works, or texts

Importance of Allusions

While reading, it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for allusions. You’re probably thinking to yourself right now, ”Why bother, if these references happen so fast?” Allusions are a quick and simple way for authors to convey meaning to the reader.

For example, an author may compare an action to opening Pandora’s Box. This is an allusion to a Greek myth. Whoever opened Pandora’s Box would release all matters of evil into the world. By referencing Pandora’s Box, the author is basically saying, ”Do that, and there will be some pretty awful consequences.” As you can see, it’s important as a reader to get the allusion to understand the author’s meaning!

You can also think of allusions as a private inside joke between the author or poet and the reader. Some poets delight in subtle allusions. They know that many of their readers will not understand what they’re alluding to! If you pick up on some of the more minor allusions, you can count yourself as part of an elite club of analytical dynamos!

Examples of Allusion in Poetry

Allusions are a popular literary device in the poetry world. Just like in novels or other pieces of prose, poems make all sorts of references to other works of literature, places, people, mythology, and the Bible.

”The Waste Land”

T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is an exceptionally long poem. As a result, it’s chock full of various allusions. One of Eliot’s first allusions is to another piece of literature:

”Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / had a bad cold, nevertheless…”

Madame Sosostris refers to the clairvoyant (a person who can see and predict the future) found in author Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow, written in 1921.

Later in the poem, Eliot refers to several places that actually exist:

”Under the brown fog of a winter dawn / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. / Flowed up the hill and down King William Street, / To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours…”

London Bridge, King William Street, and Saith Mary Woolnoth (a church) are all located in London, England.

”All Overgrown by Cunning Moss”

Emily Dickinson’s poem ”All Overgrown by Cunning Moss” is very short, however it does manage to squeeze in an allusion to another female writer. One line of the poem reads:

”The little cage of ‘Currer Bell’ / In quiet ‘Haworth’ laid.”

Who exactly is ”Currer Bell”? This is a prime example of a direct allusion that requires the reader to be in-the-know. ”Currer Bell” refers to writer Charlotte Bronte. Like many other women of her time, Bronte struggled to get her work published. She used the pen name ”Currer Bell” (a man’s name) to publish some of her writing. You may recognize Charlotte Bronte, but you’d have to be a big fan of hers to know one of her pen names!

Robert Frost

Poet Robert Frost makes many biblical references in his works, both direct and indirect. Frost’s poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ makes a direct allusion:

”So Eden sank to grief”

Eden refers to the Old Testament garden where the first man (Adam) and the first woman (Eve) lived. As the Bible story goes, Eve was swayed by a snake to eat forbidden fruit. As a result of Eve’s actions, both she and Adam fall from grace and Eden is no longer heaven on Earth.

Frost makes a subtler biblical reference in the poem ”After Apple Picking”:

”My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still…”

This line kind of seems like a non-reference, right? It just sounds like Frost is talking about a really tall ladder! Actually, this first line of the poem is an allusion to the biblical story Jacob’s Ladder, about a guy who has a dream about a ladder that takes him all the way to God’s doorstep. Throughout the poem, Frost uses the fall of apples from the trees to allude to the fall of the Garden of Eden.

”The Second Coming”

William Butler Yeats’ poem ”The Second Coming” (the title refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ!) includes an indirect allusion to Greek mythology:

”…somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man…”

Can you guess what this mythical creature is? If you guessed a sphinx, then you’re correct! According to Greek myth, the sphinx was an incredibly cunning creature.

Lesson Summary

An allusion is a literary device that makes a very quick reference to a person, place, thing, event from history, or another piece of literature or text. Allusions are brief mentions that do not receive much explanation from the writer. Authors and poets use allusions as a quick way to bring meaning to their writing; for example, a reference to Pandora’s Box means that a person’s actions will have dire consequences. Writers commonly make allusions to:

  • Literature, like T.S. Eliot’s reference to Madame Sosostris in ”The Waste Land”
  • Significant places, like T.S. Eliot’s reference to London Bridge, King William Street, and Saint Mary Woolnoth in ”The Waste Land”
  • Important people, like Emily Dickinson’s reference to ”Currer Bell” (Charlotte Bronte’s pen name) in ”All Overgrown by Cunning Moss”
  • The Bible, like Robert Frost’s reference to Eden (”Nothing Gold Can Stay”) and to Jacob’s Ladder (”After Apple Picking”)
  • Greek mythology, like William Butler Yeats’ reference to the sphinx in ”The Second Coming”