Allusion in Poetry
Allusion and poetry seem to go hand in hand – each one makes the other stronger. An allusion is a word or phrase designed to call something to mind, without mentioning that thing explicitly. This something in poetry can be anything, from another literary work, to the Bible, to popular events. Read these examples carefully to see if you can find the connection before it is explained:
Allusion Examples in Poetry
Example #1: Paradise Lost (by John Milton)
“All night the dread less Angel unpursued
Through Heaven’s wide Champaign held his way; till Morn,
Waked by the circling Hours, with rosy hand
Unbarred the gates of Light. There is a cave
Within the Mount of God, fast by his Throne”
When talking about allusion, any conversation would not be complete without discussing the King of Allusion, 17th century English poet, John Milton. In these lines alone, we count no fewer than three allusions: one to Abdiel, one to the Greek Myth “The Horae,” and one to Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
Example #2: Epistles to Several Persons (by Alexander Pope)
“Another age shall see the golden ear
Embrown the slope, and nod on the parterre,
Deep harvests bury all his pride has planned,
And laughing Ceres reassume the land.”
Here, Pope is making an allusion to Demeter, the Goddess of Wheat and Grain, showing how this place will once again return to earth for plough.
Example #3: Ode to a Grecian Urn (by Keats)
“Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?”
“Tempe” is an allusion to the Vale of Tempe, where the gods gathered. This shows his utmost respect for the urn.
Example #4: Firebird (by Lee Emmett)
“Nothing prepares us for brilliant
entrance of creature of fantasy
or object of enchantment
Useless to resist its allure
always takes unawares”
This allusion is slightly different, as it is an open allusion, meaning that everyone can interpret it differently. Some see Greek mythology allusions, while other see Biblical allusions.
Example #5: All Overgrown by Cunning Moss (by Emily Dickinson)
“All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of ‘Currer Bell’
In quiet ‘Haworth’ laid.”
Here, Dickinson makes an allusion to another writer, Charlotte Bronte, who used Currer Bell as a pen name so she could be published.
Example #6: Nothing Gold Can Stay (by Robert Frost)
“So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”
In this poem, Frost’s allusion to Eden strengthens the theme of the fleeting nature of happiness. His mention of Eden shows that humans are often their own downfall.
Example #7: The Burial of the Dead (by T. S. Eliot)
“Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.”
Here, Eliot makes a reference to Starnbergersee and Hofgarten, which are important royal places in Germany. Instead of these actual places, however, they are meant to show the beauty of life.
Example #8: The Raven (by Edgar Alan Poe)
“Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my
“Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell
me, I implore!”
Here are two allusions: One to Pallas to show the burst of wisdom, as Pallas is the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. The other is more obscure: “Balm in Gilead” is an old statement that was used to ask if there was comfort in the world.
Example #9: Dulce et Decorum Est (by Wilfred Owen)
“Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
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.”
“Dulce et decorum est” is an allusion to the start of World War I. These were the words uttered by many on the battle lines – meaning that it is sweet and right to die for your country.
Example #10: Sonnet 18 (by William Shakespeare)
“But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade.”
Shakespeare’s reference to “shade” is actually an allusion to the funeral psalm, or Psalm 23.
Function of Allusion
The function of allusion is to add depth to a writing, allowing the author to refer to certain people, places, things, or happenings in a round-about manner, in order to create a more broad meaning. Allusions are everywhere in poetry, if one just knows where to look!