An allusion is an indirect reference within prose or verse. This could be a reference to anything, including but not limited to an idea, theme, concept, or even another work of literature.
The “allusion” is a passing comment on the subject. This could take the form of an obscure quote, political reference, name, date, or location. If a reader digs deep enough into the text they can often decipher what the writer is alluding to. Other times, with more complicated works, it requires additional research in order to fully understand what the writer is speaking about.
Examples of Allusion in Literature
Example #1: Writing in the Afterlife by Billy Collins
In the second and the fourth stanzas of ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ Collin’s speaker describes what he knew about the next life before he entered it. This comes before a reference to Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology. He is tasked with ferrying the dead from one side of the River Styx to the other. Take a look at these lines from the fourth stanza of the poem:
I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin
in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,
but how could anyone have guessed
This allusion is expanded in the third line as a speaker describes the coins going into the “leather purse of the man holding the oar“. There is another reference earlier in the text, in the second stanza. Here, he refers to the river he “pictured…here” and the “boats” and “passengers”. Things are not exactly as he imagined them to be in the afterlife, but there are allusions to familiar points of reference.
Example #2: Astrophobos by H.P. Lovecraft
Allusion is used broadly within ‘Astrophobos,’ such as in the title itself. Lovecraft coined this term in order to depict the emotional landscape. The prefix, “astro” means of, or in relation to stars or outer space. The suffix, “phobos” means fear. It is an allusion to the personification of fear in Greek mythological, the offspring of Aphrodite and Ares.
Other allusions can be found at the end of the first stanza when Lovecraft refers to “the Arctic car,” an allusion to the constellation Ursa Major. Here are the lines from that section of the poem:
Ev’ry eye aloft returning,
Gleaming nigh the Arctic car.
Another example is at the end of stanza three when Lovecraft speaks of the “lute of Isfrael”.
And each moment bears a treasure
Freighted with a lotus-spell,
And there floats a liquid measure
From the lute of Israfel.
These lines connect to one of Lovecraft’s biggest influences, Edgar Allan Poe. He wrote a poem called ‘Israfel’ in which he quotes the Quran and speaks on the beauty of the angel and his voice. The passage from the Quran reads: “And the angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’ creatures”.
Example #3: I now had only to retrace by Charlotte Brontë
Within this work, the speaker is consumed by a storm and in her desperation climbs a hill to see out over the landscape. There are no lights to guide her and the sky is so dark it seems as though there will never be lights again. In amongst a number of allusions to death, the poem concludes with the speaker still trapped, perhaps on the doorstep of the afterlife.
Take a look at the fifth stanza of the poem:
The West was black as if no day
Had ever lingered there
As if no red, expiring ray
Had tinged the enkindled air
In the following stanza the allusion expands:
And morning’s portals could not lie
Where yon dark orient spread
The funeral North — the black dark sky
Alike mourned for the dead
Here again is a reference to death, lending credence to the idea that this journey is taking the speaker to her own death. The sky appears to “mourn…for the dead.”
Any sense of hope the speaker began with has been extinguished. She believes wholeheartedly that “morning’s portals,” or the rays of light that signify the rising sun, “could not lie” out beyond the hills. The only assumption a reader can make at the end of ‘I now had only to retrace’ is that the speaker succumbed to the elements and is relaying her story at the doorstep of, or from, the next world. It is due to the allusions woven into the text that these conclusion are drawn.
Example #4: A Vision by Oscar Wilde
In ‘A Vision,’ Wilde describes a speaker’s encounter with the personas of Æschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides the three Greek playwrights whose works survive. There is a great deal of background information that’s important to take note of before beginning this piece. Wilde’s speaker starts with these lines:
Two crownèd Kings, and One that stood alone
With no green weight of laurels round his head,
But with sad eyes as one uncomforted
And wearied with man’s never-ceasing moan
This is a vague allusion that will bring to mind a range of different people and characters depending on the reader. The mystery is increased with the mention of a “green weight of laurels.”
In the last two lines, the final pieces of information are revealed. They read:
“Æschylos first, the second Sophokles,
And last (wide stream of tears!) Euripides.”
The speaker reveals he has been referring to Æschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides. Æschylos is known as the “father of tragedy,” and Sophokles wrote over 120 plays and was the most celebrated playwright of Athens during his lifetime. Finally, Wilde’s speaker comes to Euripides who was far less celebrated in his life but has more surviving works than the other two combined.
There is also a reference to “Beatricé” in the text of ‘A Vision.’ While it is not entirely clear who this person is, she is likely meant to be the great love of Dante Alighieri who was partially cast as his guide in his series of epic poems, The Divine Comedy.