An Introduction to Allusion

Allusion is an implied ComparisonOpens in new window. It is an indirect expression intended to allude any fact, character, subject or any idea of choice, supposed by an author or interlocutor to be well known to his audience, without being perspicuously described, in such a way as to add force or beauty to the expression. Thus, allusions are illimitable in number and variety in contemporary works of literature.

The context of the expression is left to the audience to decipher the connection. However, where the allusion involves an overtly stated expression (as it is abundant in literary arts) by the author, the allusion is specifically termed as a referenceOpens in new window. A literary allusion bears similarity with parodyOpens in new window and other text-linking literary devices.

Allusions may vary in level of perspicuity; from such clear statements of likeness as to be almost like formal comparisons, to such indistinct references as to be comprehensible only to persons of quick perception who are thoroughly learned and cognizant with the alluded subject or fact.

Allusion from the Scripture

Scriptural passages, descriptions, or thoughts are usually referenced in the Bible to make allusions. Patrick Henry, in one of his eloquent speeches, exclaimed:

  • “Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace, when there is no peace!” Was he not thinking of what he had often heard from Jeremiah 6. 14 — “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, Peace, when there is no peace?”

Another Clergyman cited:

  • “Each one is sent to teach us something, and all together they have a lesson which is beyond the power of any to teach alone. But if they come together, we should break down, and learn nothing. The smoking flax would be put out.”
  • Reference here is alluded to the Isaiah's expression — “The smoking flax shall he not quench.”

Longfellow, in the vein of describing a tract of country troubled with insects because the people had killed the birds, was quoted as saying:

  • “Devoured by worms, like Herod, was the town
    Because, like Herod, it had ruthlessly
    Slaughered the Innocents.”
  • — (Cicero, de Oratore.)

The lines above allude to two historical facts and two Herods: Herod the Great that “slaughtered the innocents” at Bethlehem, and the first Herod Agrippa who was “devoured by worms,” as is related in the 12th chapter of “The Acts of the Apostles.” The history of the periods are suggested, and the concepts are elegantly expressed by the poet.

Allusion from Ancient Materials

It is common also with writers to resort to facts and expressions from the most credible works of the ancient Greek and Latin languages, which is presumed to well known to literary scholars, and use them as points of illustration to make allusions. The following are examples of such illustration:

  • “The railway and telegraph,” says Dr. D. D. Whedon, “are breaking up the hostile demarcations which once divided and inflamed mankind — and so wing-footed Mercury is tearing up old Terminus.” Mercury being alluded here, was the message-bearer, or errand-boy, of the gods; Terminus defended “the ancient land-marks which the fathers had set.”
  • —(courtesy: Erastus Otis Haven, Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and Private Study. Pg. 97)
  • “You may meet with people inclined to divert themselves with your credulity, but don’t be duped, nor believe yourself, though they should swear it, the eight wonder of the world.

    The piece here, alludes to a favorite notion of the ancients that the world had only seven great wonders which they enumerated.

Allusion from Anonymous Context

Contextually, allusion is illimitable, it may be made to customs and traditions, phrases, as well as to science and every other known subject of thought as long as it’s known and understood by the hearers. In this manner, Dr. Bushnell in a lecture before a learned audience was quoted as saying:

  • “The universities will be filled with a profound spirit of religion, and the bene orasse will be a fountain of inspiration.”
  • This piece was alluded to the common practical maxim often cited as Luther’s favorite motto; “Bene orasse est bene studuisse;” meaning “To have prayed well is to have studied well.”

Likewise Fuller, in the vein of describing a graceful writer, was quoted as saying:

  • “He was excellent at the flat hand of rhetoric, which gives rather pats than blows; but he could not bend his fist to dispute.”
  • Obviously, this piece will almost always ring a bell to the few privileged to have come across the notion of Cicero, where in one of his works compared Rhetoric and Logic to the flat hand and the fist respectively.

Guidelines to achieve Good Allusions.

  1. Spontaineity —the allusion should be allowed to readily spring up from a thought in the mind and not be laboriously sought after from the encyclopaedia or any other external resource.
  2. Precision —the allusion should be exact and precise, in such vein as to add force and elegance to the subject.
  3. Sensitivity Of The Occasion —the allusion should be used with sensitivity to the occasion and most importantly be deduced from subjects or concepts well known to the hearers; and not to hype nor degrade the sentiment awkwardly.
  4. Interposing Explanations —where the subject of allusion is presumed alien to the hearers, interpose words of explanation to enhance clarity and comprehension.

Allusions are illimitable, it may be made to customs and traditions, phrases, as well as to science and almost always every other known subject or choice of thoughts, as long as it’s known and understood by the hearers.

Further Readings:
Wikipedia | AllusionOpens in new window
Erastus Otis Haven, Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and Private Study | AllusionOpens in new window