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:
Short Examples of Allusion
- His opponent was looking for his Achilles’ heel to beat him.
- The property tycoon named his housing society Eden Garden.
- The decision of the apex court would certainly open Pandora’s Box.
- His best friend now considered him Brutus due to his recent betrayal.
- Blake’s fellow students call him Einstein for his genius.
- The ship sank like a Titanic.
- The renowned scholar suffered from narcissism.
- Tony Buzan is called the Stephen Hawking of mind sciences.
- The young writer was rightly called the Shakespeare of modern times.
- The young scientist was called Newton by his colleagues.
- He was called Hamlet because of his procrastinating habits.
- The prices have gone so high that a common thing like wheat has become forbidden fruit.
- An apple fell on his head but he discovered nothing.
- To climb Mount Everest in winter was a Herculean task.
- The film was based on the hero’s platonic love.
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.
Example #11: Venus and Adonis (by William Shakespeare)
“Narcissus so himself himself forsook
And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.”
The word in bold is used as an allusion, taken from the classical mythology where a handsome man falls in love with his own body and keeps looking at himself in the water.
Example #12: Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock (by T.S. Eliot)
“To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all —”
In the Bible, Lazarus has been raised by Jesus to tell what happened to him after his death. The poet says he is not Lazarus, who can do this, but a common man. This may refer to contrast in the lives of the poet and that of Lazarus.
Example #13: Hamlet (by William Shakespeare)
“Like Niobe, all tears. Why she, even she—
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!—married with my uncle”
The allusion is to Greek mythology, for the mother who wept for the death of her sons.
Example #14: The Raven (by Edgar Allan Poe)
“Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door —
Perched, and sat, and nothing more”
Pallas alludes to the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena. The poet has used this allusion to show his love for learning and scholarship. It may also refer to the poet’s rational approach.
Example #15: The Prelude (by William Wordsworth)
In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,
I was transplanted …
William Wordsworth has used an allusion of the valley where he spent his childhood. The word Vale has an initial capital, which points to his use of allusion.
Example #16: The Ministry of Fear (by Seamus Heaney)
“The lonely scarp
Of St Columb’s College, where I billeted
For six years, overlooked your Bogside.”
Seamus Heaney has used allusion in the shape of the name of his college. It is highlighted in the second line “St Columb’s College.”
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!