Allusion is a passing reference, without explicit identification, to a literary
or historical person, place, or event, or to another literary work or passage. In
the Elizabethan Thomas Nashe’s “Litany in Time of Plague,”
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye,
the unidentified “Helen” in the last line alludes to Helen of Troy. Most allusions
serve to illustrate or expand upon or enhance a subject, but some are
used in order to undercut it ironically by the discrepancy between the subject
and the allusion. In the lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) describing
a woman at her modern dressing table,
“The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble,”
the ironic allusion, achieved by echoing Shakespeare’s phrasing, is to Cleopatra’s
magnificent barge in Antony and Cleopatra (II. ii. 196 ff.):
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water.
For discussion of a poet who makes persistent and complex use of this
device, see Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (1959); see
also John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After
(1981); and Edwin Stein, Wordsworth’s Art of Allusion (1988).
*Lines from “O where are you going?” from W. H. Auden: Collected Poems 1927-1957 by
W. H. Auden, ed. by Edward Mendelson. Copyright ©1934 and renewed 1962 by W. H.
Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc., and Faber & Faber Ltd.
**Lines from “The Waste Land” from Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T. S. Eliot, copyright
1936 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., copyright © 1964,1963 by T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by
permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Faber and Faber Ltd.
Since allusions are not explicitly identified, they imply a fund of knowledge
that is shared by an author and the audience for whom the author
writes. Most literary allusions are intended to be recognized by the generally
educated readers of the author’s time, but some are aimed at a special coterie.
For example, in Astrophel and Stella, the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, Sir Philip
Sidney’s punning allusions to Lord Robert Rich, who had married the Stella of
the sonnets, were identifiable only by intimates of the people concerned. (See
Sonnets 24 and 37.) Some modern authors, including Joyce, Pound, and Eliot,
include allusions that are very specialized, or else drawn from the author’s private
reading and experience, in the awareness that few if any readers will recognize
them prior to the detective work of scholarly annotators. The current
term intertextuality includes literary echoes and allusions as one of the many
ways in which any text is interlinked with other texts.