Allusion, according to A Handbook to Literature by C. Hugh Holman, The Odyssey Press, “is a figure of speech making casual reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event.” According to definitions in various literature and composition text books, an allusion is the casual reference to a figure or event in history or literature that creates a mental image in the mind of the reader.
All right, young man in the back, what’s the problem? I hear you whispering. Maybe I can answer your question better than your neighbor.
“Uh, well, I just think maybe you have confused something. Isn’t an allusion something you see that isn’t there?”
Thank you. I’m so glad you asked that question. Many people do confuse allusion and illusion. An allusion is the reference to someone or something in literature or history. Illusion is something which is not actually seen or which does not really exist.
One example of an allusion would be something like “Like a modern Daniel, the brave little boy strode to the playground in order to face the school bully.” The reference to Daniel from the Bible who faced hungry lions brings bravery to mind. Another allusion might be “The Paul Bunyon of a man filled the small room.”
An illusion might be “Jim Ross told everyone about the flying saucer he watched in the night sky. His wife shook her head in disbelief. ‘You also say you saw me do a strip tease on the front porch, illusions the result of over-inbibing that brew you make in the garage’.”
Many times writers, especially poets, allude to Biblical characters and events. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare used the line “A Daniel come to judgement.” T.S. Eliot uses a complex literary allusion in his The Waste Land and in his notes about that poem.
I use allusion occasionally, as in the following poems, and many times I allude to something Biblical as I do in these. (All poetry is copyrighted by Vivian Gilbert Zabel.)
Lost and Found
Screams rend the night darkness
As chaos reigns in sleeping minds.
Fighting echoing shrieks to awareness,
Those once drowsing find themselves
Now huddling in fear beneath covers.
Fire flickers through the filter of eyelids,
While those braver than the rest peek
To glimpse shadows of nightmares
Lingering in delight of tears streaming
Down cheeks of those too scared to run.
Then faith reaches out its hopeful hand
To touch and tame the frightful madness
That only Hell can bring to those who live.
The hero of a demon-filled existence
Is the One who loves man the most.
The allusion to Hell brings to mind the agony that is to be found there.
Who wants to live forever?
So the pain of heart and limbsCan endure ever lasting?
Discomfort will grow each day
Until I won’t want to stay.
Talk of immortality,
I could greet my grandchildren’s
Progeny for many years.
But when their time disappears,
I would be overwhelmed with tears.
I could watch history pass
With war, disease, desolation.
Leaders would rise and then fall,
Bringing hope, sometimes despair,
But never long-lasting care.
I don’t want to live forever,
Not in this world we now know.
I want to know that some day
I will be able to escape
To a place not filled with hate.
Who wants to live forever?
In a place of cloudless skies,
Of love, peace, and endless joy,
Sunlight gleams without a storm,
Glory found in every form.
I will take forever life
In the place where He’s alive,
To know that everyone there
Need not be separated
Nor ever feel incarcerated.
No pain, no illness, no tears
Will be seen much less known,
War, a word not even heard.
Yes, I will live forever
Once I cross Jordan’s river.
In the Bible, the river Jordan came to mean the river that one crosses into Heaven, therefore representing death.
In the first poem, the allusion adds to the emotion of agony, pain, torture. However, in the second poem, the allusion adds to the imagery but not exactly to the emotion.
So what allusion brings an emotional image to mind? What does Sir Gallahad bring to mind? Courage, love, knight in shining armor all come to mind, emotional reactions.
The young boy’s eyes sparkled
As he spied the golden curls
Peeking from under her winter cap.
Since an eight-year-old isn’t poetic,
He packed snow into a ball
And threw with all his might,
Knocking the hat from her head.
Imagine his surprise as she whirled
And returned fire, hitting his chest,
Where love for her bloomed.
Over the years, fast friends
They became as they skipped
Hand in hand through school.
His junior prom, she was his date,
As was he for hers the next.
After he left for college,
Letters, like winged flames,
Flew from him to her each week.
The summer became a time of joy
As they rebuilt their love again.
In fall, they had to part once more,
He back to the next level;
She, to the college in town.
Once full of love and laughter,
Messages from her came
Slower and shorter each time.
Soon, by Christmas, they stopped.
By end of semester, he heard
She gave her love to another.
His heart turned to stone.
Years passed, he earned a fortune,
But he never had a family.
At last the loner returned home
To find his lost love not only
Another’s wife, but a mother.
He stood in the background,
Knowing her husband could be ruined.
He had the means; he had the hate.
Then he saw her face in his mind
And packed the hate away.
He died the other day,
A driver didn’t pause or stop.
Many attended the funeral
With one woman at the back.
Tears pooled and spilled
Before she wiped her face,
Turned, and slipped away.
Only later did she know
He left her not only his heart
But everything he had.
Unknown to her, he had been more,
Her Sir Galahad: Although he wore
A tarnished, rusted suit of armor.
I hope you will try using allusion in your poetry, for a touch of imagery if nothing else, but also try to see if the device can add a dose of emotion.