What is Literary Allusion?

What is allusion? And what role does allusion play in works of literature? It’s a key part of what many writers do, so it’s worth defining ‘allusion’ and exploring some of the issues that arise from its use in literary texts. First, though, a handy one-sentence definition might help: allusion is when a writer calls into play the work of another writer, usually without explicitly mentioning that other writer by name. If the writer is mentioned, it becomes a reference. Contrast these two (made-up) examples:

As Shakespeare has Polonius say, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’

I had a choice when growing up between becoming a tiny person living in someone’s skirting boards and become a food mixer. But someone advised me, ‘Neither a Borrower nor a Blender be.’

A terrible joke, for which we hope you’ll forgive us. But it neatly (if crudely) sums up the difference between conventional quotation (or reference) and allusion. In the first example, the speaker helpfully tells us he’s quoting Shakespeare (and specifically, his character Polonius, from the play Hamlet).

But in the second example, we as readers (or listeners) are being asked to do a bit more work: as well as knowing about the fictional Borrowers from the books by Mary Norton, we’re being asked to recognise that Polonius says ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’, without being told this. We need to have prior knowledge of that literary phrase (and of the Borrowers) for the joke (such as it is) to work.

An allusion, therefore, is often implied and indirect, rather than being spelt out and ‘labelled’ for the reader.

Here it is worth distinguishing between the sort of stealing that is out-and-out literary plagiarism and the sort of ‘stealing’ that constitutes literary allusion. Allusion means to call something into play: the word is etymologically related to the word ludic, meaning ‘pertaining to play’ (and, therefore, to the board game Ludo, which simply means ‘I play’ in Latin). So a poet alluding to another writer may well quote that earlier writer without acknowledging their debt to them. Is this an example of plagiarism?

Fittingly, T. S. Eliot, whose work is shot through with allusions to other writers, offers a good opportunity to observe the distinction between allusion and plagiarism. In Eliot’s short poem ‘Cousin Nancy’, written in the early twentieth century, he concludes with the line ‘The army of unalterable law’. This line is lifted straight from an earlier, Victorian poet, George Meredith (pictured below right):

Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

When a reader spotted the ‘theft’, Eliot responded by pointing out that his use of Meredith’s line was not plagiarism, because he intended the reader to recognise the line as a deliberate borrowing (Meredith’s poetry was still quite widely read at the time, unlike now), and to note the difference in context between Meredith’s original use and Eliot’s, which transports Meredith’s weighty line to the context of the mantelpiece in a New England drawing room.

In other words, the plagiarist wants to get away with their theft and hope nobody spots that their wares are less than new; the poet who alludes to another’s work, as Eliot does here, wants to be ‘found out’. But because the nature of allusion is that it is implicit rather than spelt out for the reader, there is always a danger either that a reader will miss the allusion or (as in the case of Eliot’s critic) that they will spot the quoted line and think the later poet is guilty of plagiarism.

Sticking with T. S. Eliot, one of the most famous poets to engage in literary allusion, let’s consider the beginning of his landmark 1922 poem The Waste Land. Even before we get to the first line of the poem proper, we have a title (The Waste Land), an epigraph (from the Roman satirist Petronius), a dedication (‘For Ezra Pound / Il miglior fabbro’), and the title of the first section of the poem (‘The Burial of the Dead’).

All of these textual components of Eliot’s poem engage with previous literary texts. The title, as Eliot acknowledged in his prefatory remark to the ‘Notes’ he appended to the poem, was suggested by a 1920 book by Jessie Weston, From Ritual to Romance, which discusses the Arthurian legend involving the Fisher King, whose land was laid waste.

Then we get the epigraph to Eliot’s poem, from Petronius’ Satyricon: an epigraph is a direct quotation from another work. Then we have Eliot’s dedication to Ezra Pound, his friend and fellow modernist poet, who had helped to edit the manuscript of The Waste Land and knock it into shape.

But Eliot doesn’t just write ‘For Ezra Pound’: he adds three words in Italian, ‘Il miglior fabbro’, which mean ‘the better craftsman’ (an allusion to Pound’s editorial role in making the poem what it was). But these words aren’t just a random Italian phrase, but a quotation from the works of the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), for whom Eliot and Pound shared a deep admiration.

This literary allusion to Dante is to intensify the bond between Eliot and Pound, and thus the debt of thanks Eliot owes his friend: it’s an allusion because the quotation isn’t glossed or attributed to Dante. Eliot is relying on Pound, as well as his most literate readers, picking up on the personal significance of these words. It’s the literary equivalent of signing a leaving card for someone at work, and as well as wishing them all the best adding a little message which references a popular ‘in-joke’ the two of you shared. It makes public a private shared ‘language’, if you will.

Finally, before we eventually reach the opening line of the poem, we have the title of the first section: ‘The Burial of the Dead’. These words allude to the Christian burial service as outlined in the sixteenth-century Book of Common Prayer. So already we have Arthurian legend, pagan (Roman) culture, and Christian liturgy being summoned, to say nothing of Dante (whose ghost will haunt many of the allusions in The Waste Land). None of this would carry the same significance if Eliot ‘signposted’ it all clearly for us.

Part of the significance of literary allusion, then, is the fun of leaving certain things implicit, and relying on the reader to discover and appreciate their relevance and significance. Allusion is different from both plagiarism (where the culprit doesn’t want their borrowing to be discovered) and explicit quotation (where the writer names and cites the author being quoted).

Part of the role of literary allusion is to allow the reader to access a shared cultural frame of reference, as if the link between the new text and the older one doesn’t need stating outright. It’s worth remembering that to allude is literally to call into play – part of the fun of literary allusion is the play of words and phrases, putting them into new contexts, and relying on a discerning reader to divine their significance.

One Comment

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but couldn’t Eliot’s quotation from Meredith also be described as a “homage”?