Why does the writer use the allusion in the essay

Allusion and Its Effects in Pope and Johnson

In some eighteenth century works, the emphasis on alluding to and drawing inspiration from the past proved to be one of the most effective methods in composing a satirical piece. Appearing in two forms, Juvenal or Horatian, a satire is “a poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule” (Drabble). Alexander Pope’s The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated alludes to the past as well as the present in a piece representative of Horatian satire. Serving as the example of Juvenalian satire is Samuel Johnson’s London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal. The significance of the allusions present in both pieces is central to understanding the overall intention of each satire.

Alexander Pope’s The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated, published in London in 1733, is Pope’s endeavor to defend himself and his satirizing works, by writing yet another satire (Pope 1-14). In the poem, he defends himself by alluding to some of his previous victims and subjects, declaring satire to be the truth as well as his guilty pleasure and if he ceased to write he would “think/ and for my Soul I cannot sleep a wink/…Fools rush into my head, and so I write” (Pope 29). Writing, particularly of the follies and vices of others is his primary passion. The poem is written as a dialogue between Pope and a friend who acts as his “council learned in the Law” and as Pope justifies his satire, the friend attempts to convince him of the dangers of his writing (Pope 27). Having the piece written as a dialogue allows the reader a chance to hear an outsider’s opinions as the text jumps from the friend’s main concerns followed by Pope’s justifications. Incorporating dialogue between Pope and another into the poem adds an extra dimension to it by allowing the reader to place themselves into the text as a second character in the dialogue.

The controversial nature of his allusions and subjects are the source of the displeasure towards his poems. Arguably, the “precise question is whether Pope’s verses constitute satire or libel” (Maresca 366). Is he merely making a mockery of those included in his works, or is he in fact guilty of slander against them? Pope defends his earlier works, referencing when he wrote satires that seemed “too bold/ Scarce to wise Peter complaisant enough/ And something said of Chartres much too rough” (Pope 27). Pope affirms he wrote satire and not libel since both references were to guilty men, thus Pope “undermines the charge of libel in the very act of presenting it by referring to his attacks” (Maresca 367). Pope believes he is not guilty of libel when the words he wrote were that of public opinion.

He satirizes the traditional poets methods of writing merely for the pleasure and satisfaction of others such as the poet “Sir Richard, rumbling, rough and fierce/ With Arms and George, and Brunswick crowd the Verse”, who writes what Pope considers to be shallow poetry written purely for the affections of royalty (Pope 29). Pope refers to what he sees as lesser poets thus providing an example to further defend that he must be the one to satirize the truth otherwise no one will. The friend encourages Pope to use his poetry to “Let Carolina smooth the tuneful Lay/ Lull with Amelia’s liquid Name the Nine/ And sweetly flow through all the Royal Line” because in immortalizing the royal family he has the greater possibility of immortalizing his own writing (Pope 31). Pope writes poetry in order to give insight into the human condition and to uncover the flaws that exists in everyone. When comparing Pope’s satire to Horace’s original, and in regards to writing poetry for the glorification of royalty, Pope’s and Horace’s “excuse for not writing heroic poetry is literally true of them; their talents are insufficient” (Maresca 386). Pope deems royalty unworthy of such immortalization without just cause.

Pope further alludes to the past when professing his dedication to remaining honest and true in his works:

My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill,

Verse-man or Prose-man term me which you will,

Papist or Protestant, or both between,

Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean. (Pope 33)

Erasmus was one of the great sixteenth-century scholars, known for a number works including translations of the Bible and classics that helped revolutionize European literary culture (Drabble). In alluding to Erasmus, Popes draws a comparison between himself and another great intellectual. Erasmus authored The Praise of Folly in 1511 which satirized church dignitaries and theologians (Drabble). Erasmus satirized others and was still considered ‘good’ and ‘honest’, traits which Pope himself wishes he and his satires can be associated with as well. Pope draws from the past in order to compare and relate them both with one another, allowing for the association to positively impact Pope’s own reception with his readers.

Pope further defends his use of satire in the lines:

I only wear it in a Land of Hectors,

Thieves, Supercargoes, Sharpers, and Directors,

Save but our Army! and let Jove incrust

Swords, Pikes, and Guns, with everlasting rust! (Pope 35)

Pope has alluded to the past as well as the present here in order to defend his satire. He uses satire against the “Land of Hectors/ Thieves, Supercargoes, Sharpers, and Directors” who represent the “corrupt and vice-ridden England” that exists in the present (Maresca 390). His inclusion of the government arises from his use of the term “Minister” which “emphasizes the fact that the court is principally responsible for the disorder of England and so indirectly responsible for Pope’s compulsion to write satire” (Maresca 391). Pope cleverly brings the satire full circle in claiming those who criticize his use of it are the sources of his material for writing it. His ultimate defense is that he must write it. Along with these present allusions, Pope’s use of “Jove” alludes to the the ancient Roman god, also known as Jupiter. Jove is the king of the gods, and the allusion to him emphasizes the power Pope places in the notion of peace. He asks for peace in asking Jove to destroy the weapons of their armies, in the same way he asks for peace from his readers.

Samuel Johnson’s London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal was published in London of 1738 (Johnson 1). This poem employs Juvenal satire to express Johnson’s disappointment and disgust over the present state of his beloved city of London. As Pope did, Johnson also alludes to the past and the present, though since the poem is Juvenal satire, the allusions are less playful and more abrasive and critiquing (Drabble). Having the poem be an imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal immediately associates the poem with the past. In constructing his poem this way, each line though different from the original, still bears some connection to it. The structures and ideas within the lines of Johnson’s London were written in a manner reflective of the original, bringing the past to his new poem.

Within the first stanza of the poem Johnson emphasizes the poor state of London:

I praise the Hermit, but regret the Friend,

Who no resolves, from Vice and London far,

To breathe in distant Fields a purer Air,

And, fix’d on Cambria’s solitary Shore,

Give to St David one true Briton more. (Johnson 3)

His use of the phrase “from Vice and London far” presents the reader with the association between vice and London essentially equating one with the other. London has become so corrupt and broken that it is nearly synonymous with the term vice. Even a “true Briton” can no longer take up residence there, seeking relief where there is a “purer Air” (Johnson 3). His use of “true Briton” to describe the personae of the speaker, Thales, in the poem implies a strong sense of pride, but even that pride is not powerful enough to make one stay in London. Thales acts as “a stereotype of the good man ‘harass’d’ by the vileness of his city…[who] must endure the agony of exile in order to survive as a ‘foe to vice’” (Bloom 116). Johnson draws such a critical distinction between Thales and the vice-ridden Londoners. In presenting the image of this fractured London, Johnson reveals how society has “in itself the elements of its own destruction, an enemy within which will subvert and betray it” (Varney 204). When Johnson asks “For who would leave, unbrib’d, Hibernia’s Land/ Or change the Rocks of Scotland for the Strand” he draws subtle allusions of the past in using more classical names Cambria and Hibernia to refer to Wales and Ireland (Johnson 4). These more classical terms imply a sense of history or the overall passing of time.

Some of the most powerful allusions to the past are included in the third stanza of the poem:

Struck with the Seat that gave Eliza Birth,

We kneel, and kiss the consecrated Earth;

In pleasing Dreams the blissful Age renew,

And call Brittannia’s Glories back to view;

Behold her Cross triumphant on the Main,

The Guard of Commerce, and the Dread of Spain. (Johnson 5)

The suggestion of the “consecrated Earth” where Queen Elizabeth was born brings up what is considered one of the greatest reigns of England. Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603, and during her successful reign was immortalized in countless works of literature and art (Drabble). Her inclusion in the poem draws a clear distinction between the present London of Johnson’s poem, and London back in its days of greater glory. In alluding to Elizabeth I Johnson begs the reader to consider the seriousness of his poem in forcing the reader to make their own comparisons between London of the present and the past.

Since the poem refers to one of the most renowned political figures of England, it draws a stark contrast between past and current administrations. Politics has a heavy hand in influencing London and many of the downfalls Johnson see within it. London “reflected and contributed to the volatile political atmosphere of 1738 and its popularity was undoubtedly bolstered by its fiercely engage content and tone”, thus making it one of Johnson’s most publicized works (Varney 203).

Further emphasis on the political issues in London in 1738 are brought up as Johnson asks readers to “call Britannia’s Glories back to view/ Behold her Cross triumphant on the Main/ The Guard of Commerce, and the Dread of Spain” (Johnson 5). Looking to the past is necessary to comprehend Johnson’s insistence that London is rapidly falling apart. When compared to “Britannia’s Glories” of the past, London in 1738 appears in even greater shambles. He reminds readers of the days when the English army was triumphant and defeated the Spanish Armada, drawing another comparison to its present lack of victories. The depth of Thales’ pain for London’s downfall is evident as he “is more shaken by the world he decries and may even have taken on something of its fated and self-destructive character. He is more a product of the world he lives in and less independent” (Varney 205). This description reveals the level of involvement of Thales, how unbearable and destructive the nature of things are. If London falls, all of its people will fall with it. Johnson cannot stress the importance enough.

The allusions used by Pope and Johnson serve primarily to add a new dimension and depth to their satires, whether Horatian or Juvenal. Drawing from the past in order to make a point about the present proves a successful means for each. In his First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Pope defends himself over his use of satire. He sharply defends himself where others have found reason to critique him, not for the quality of his writing, but for his subjects. In his writing Pope believes in “the virtuous intent of his satire, and points out that under other kings satirists, not flatterers, had been rewarded with royal favor” (Maresca 391). Pope alludes to Erasmus to bring similarities between the two of them, with the hopes of receiving the same respect Erasmus received. Drawing from the past brings an element of time to the work. Pope connects the past and present, almost questioning why Erasmus was so well received for his satire while Pope is so harshly judged. This all relies on the distinction between satire and libel, and in walking the fine line between the two, Pope is making himself subject to such criticisms.

Johnson’s efforts to draw inspiration and allusion from the past seems to have a greater and more profound effect upon his work than on Pope’s. His allusions come from a variety of areas whether historical, political, mythological, or cultural. In order to emphasize the social and political issues occurring in London in 1738, he takes advantage of these allusions to stress the changes that have changed London from the most wonderful city, to a decrepit and fallen city. He uses historical political figures such as Elizabeth I and Edward III to remind prideful Londoners of the glory their nation once possessed. In addition to reminiscing about better days, he reveals what he believes are the problems with London at present- from vanity, to poverty, to shame, and all the vices employed therein. London is such a success “not just because of the accuracy, mordancy, and poetic brilliance with which Johnson has suited Juvenal’s satire…but because Johnson fuses with his public satire a deeply impassioned presentation of the mind in distress” (Varney 204). Johnson’s Thales is so passionate about the city he loves that it effects his actual being; it is not just about the city of London, but of the physical and emotional state of Londoners themselves. He possesses a strong love for London, even in its current troubled state, and his words serve to reignite such spirit in his fellow Londoners.

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D Bloom. “Johnson’s London and Its Juvenalian Texts”. Huntington Library Quarterly 34.1 (1970): 1-23. JSTOR. Web. 9 November 2011.

Drabble, Margaret, and Jenny Stringer. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. eBook.

Johnson, Samuel. London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal. London, 1738. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 9 November 2011.

Maresca, Thomas E. “Pope’s Defense of Satire: The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated”. ELH 31.4 (1964): 366-394. JSTOR. Web. 9 November 2011.

Pope, Alexander. The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace, Imitated. London, 1733. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 9 November 2011.

Varney, Andrew. “Johnson’s Juvenalian Satire On London: A Different Emphasis”. The Review of English Studies 40.158 ( May 1989): 202-214. JSTOR. Web. 9 November 2011.


What is an allusion? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas, and they do so in order to layer associations and meanings from these sources onto their own work. Allusions can also occur in media other than literature, such as film, visual arts, or even casual conversation. If you’ve ever responded to betrayal with a dramatic cry of “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”), then you’ve made an allusion—to a famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Some additional key details about allusions:

  • Allusions can be direct or indirect, meaning that they might explicitly state the name of the thing they’re referring to, or they might hint at it in other, subtler ways.
  • Allusions to other works of literature are often harder to identify and understand than allusions to events or people, since they require a reader to have familiarity with the text being referenced.
  • Many phrases used in everyday speech are actually allusions to works of literature. For example, the use of “catch 22” to describe a situation with no good outcome alludes to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. To use “Cassandra” to refer to someone who correctly predicts a bad outcome alludes to Aeschylus’s The Orestia. And using “big brother” to refer to governmental surveillance alludes to George Orwell’s 1984.

Allusion Pronunciation

Here’s how to pronounce allusion: uh-loo-zhun

Understanding Allusions

Imagine if every time someone used the expression “it was a real Cinderella story,” they had to retell the entire story of Cinderella to explain exactly what they meant. By using an allusion to a classic fairytale that a majority of people will already know, a speaker can dramatically shorten what could have been a much lengthier explanation. However, in order for an allusion to achieve its intended effect, the person making the allusion needs to make accurate assumptions about what knowledge their audience already has. A few key things factor into whether someone will or won’t catch an an allusion included by a writer:

  • Cultural or historical familiarity: A reader’s ability to understand a given allusion depends strongly on their cultural background. For this reason, it can be particularly difficult to identify and understand allusions in texts that are from different historical periods or other cultures. So an allusion that would have been easy to understand for readers who lived two-hundred years ago in China may be exceedingly difficult for a modern American reader to grasp without the help of an editor’s footnote.
  • General knowledge: Take the following scene from The Sopranos as an example. In the 28th episode of the HBO series The Sopranos, there’s a scene in which Tony Soprano eats a slice of capicola (a type of salami), and the taste of it induces a flashback to a panic attack he had in early childhood. It’s a direct allusion to a famous passage from Marcel Proust’s canonical book In Search of Lost Time, in which the taste of a madeleine (a type of French tea cookie) sends the narrator down a rabbit hole of early childhood memories.
  • Subtlety of the allusion: Even readers who might have the cultural or general knowledge to catch an allusion might not always catch it, based on how subtle the allusion is. The example from The Sopranos, for instance, never explicitly refers to In Search of Lost Time. Rather, it just echoes events from that other work of art, and it doesn’t even do so with the same good (it uses capicola rather than a madeleine). Even someone who knows In Search of Lost Time might have missed this allusion.

In the example above, the scene would still make perfect sense to anyone unfamiliar with Proust’s madeleines. But to those “in the know,” the fact that this scene parallels such an important moment in French literature has the effect of elevating Tony Soprano to equivalence with distinguished literary figures and heightening the resonance of the flashback.

How Are Allusions and References Different?

There’s a lot of confusion, particularly online, about what kinds of references count as allusions, and which are merely references. There are two different ways that people draw a distinction between allusions and references:

  • Allusions must be indirect while references are direct. This school of thought holds that an allusion can only be a allusion if it is indirect, in the sense that what is being alluded to is not explicitly named. So people who believe this would say that the example “it was a real Cinderella story” that we gave above shouldn’t count as an allusion because it names the thing it’s referencing directly. Under this definition, for the previous statement to be an allusion it would have to be something like: “It was a glass-slipper ending” (a reference to Cinderella that doesn’t explicitly use the main character’s name).
  • Allusions must not be further explained. This second position holds that it doesn’t matter if an allusion is direct or indirect, but rather that an allusion is only an allusion if it’s not followed by further explanation that tries to make the allusion’s meaning or source clear to the reader.

While either definition of an allusion is valid and defensible, we tend to lean toward the second interpretation because in some cases the line between whether an allusion has been provided in a way that is direct or indirect can be so subtle that it’s actually difficult to tell if it’s indirect or not. For that reason, it seems simpler and easier to just go with the second definition.

Intertextual and Autobiographical Allusions

Allusions can be made to all sorts of things: history, sports, pop culture, and so on. There are two types of allusions that can be more difficult for readers to notice than other kinds, simply because these allusions require that the reader have more specialized knowledge in order to be able to spot them. These two types of allusions are intertextual allusions and autobiographical allusions.

Intertextual Allusions

Intertextual allusions—that is, allusions to other texts—are often more difficult to identify and understand than allusions to historical events or popular culture, because intertextual allusions require a knowledge of other works of literature. A writer may use intertextual allusion to invoke a character or plot that they see as having relevance to their own work. Intertextual allusion can also be a tool for writers who want to put their work in dialogue with a particular literary tradition, or signal who their influences are without stating them explicitly.

For example, in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot makes an intertextual allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Prufrock, the narrator of Eliot’s poem, speaks at length about his own emotional paralysis, but in this passage he makes a decisive shift and declares himself to be different from Hamlet, who is a famously conflicted and indecisive character. Prufrock then compares himself to one of the play’s “attendant lords,” who are presented as figures with seriousness and a sense of purpose.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince.

Autobiographical Allusions

Autobiographical allusions, or allusions to events in the life of an author, may go over the heads of all but the most familiar readers—such as the author’s friends and family—but they can add a deeply personal dimension to the text. For example, in “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet makes indirect reference to an injury that prevented him from joining his friends on a hiking trip. To readers unfamiliar with Coleridge’s injury, it may be unclear why he compares a shady spot under a lime tree to a prison.

Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity!

In addition, though Coleridge addresses his friend “Charles” by only his first name, he is alluding to Charles Lamb, a famous English essayist. Readers likely would have made the connection from the name alone (if Matt Damon wrote a poem referring to “Ben,” you’d probably guess that it was Ben Affleck, since they’re notoriously close friends), but Coleridge underscores the allusion by referring to the “great City”—Lamb spent much of his life living in London.

Allusion vs. Similar Terms

Allusion is similar to several other literary devices that link a text with an external person or thing. For that reason, it’s worthwhile to understand what makes each device unique. Here are three devices that are similar to allusion:

  • Citation: Quoting a relevant author or source by name.
  • Parody: Imitating an author or style with the intent to ridicule.
  • Pastiche: Imitating an author or style with the intent to celebrate.

Though citation, like allusion, links the author’s work with an external text, the reference is not indirect. In citation, unlike in allusion, the name of the author or source of the reference must be explicitly mentioned. Further, citations are almost always further explained, meaning that when a writer includes a citation they go on to describe why they’ve included it and how it relates to what they are writing.

Parody and pastiche are genres of writing that indirectly refer to the the general styles of other writers or genres. Unlike allusions, which generally function by referring to specific events, characters, or sentences or lines from another work, parody and pastiche do not operate so specifically. Instead, parody and pastiche require a thorough imitation of an author’s tone, plot, or diction—as opposed to a simple reference to just a word or phrase, as in allusion.

Other Devices Used in Making Allusions

Sometimes, other literary devices are used in the process of making an allusion. For that reason, these devices are closely linked to allusion, though they are not the same thing. Below are some literary devices that are often—though not always—used when making an allusion.

  • An epithet is a word or phrase that describes an important characteristic of someone or something and is often used in the place of a name (e.g., calling Abraham Lincoln “Honest Abe” or “The Great Emancipator”). Because epithets can be used to refer to people or things without naming them directly, they can be a helpful tool for making allusions. For example, if a writer described a character as “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” readers might understand that the writer is making an allusion to the character of Peter Pan by using a widely-recognized epithet instead of naming him directly.
  • Euphemism is the use of a polite or indirect word in the place of a harsh, improper, or explicit term when referring to something troubling, uncomfortable, or offensive. The indirect nature of euphemism makes it a helpful tool in making a subtle allusion to something uncomfortable. For example, in one of the examples below, a character uses the term “big bang” as a euphemism for the atomic bomb. This euphemism is one of the passage’s key clues to the reader that the writer is alluding to the Second World War.

Allusion Examples

The use of allusion is widespread—in literature, in other disciplines, and even in conversation—because it is an effective way of establishing a relationship between different ideas, time periods, or works of art.

Allusion in Literature

Because most writers are active readers, many works of literature are full of allusions to other texts. Allusions to current events and major political developments are also quite common in poetry, prose, and drama.

Allusion in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In this example from Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet alludes to several of the Greek and Roman gods while describing a portrait of his late father.

See what a grade was seated on this brow,
Hyperion ‘s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars ‘ to threaten and command .

Instead of describing his father’s appearance and personality outright, Hamlet uses allusion to communicate more poetically: his father has the god Hyperion’s curly hair, the strong forehead of Jove (also known as Jupiter or Zeus), and the commanding presence of Mars, the god of war. As Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with the physical appearance of these gods (as depicted in paintings), as well as their backstories, these allusions invoke a whole range of images, stories, and historical periods (the Greek and Roman empires, most notably). These allusions add to the descriptive power of the passage, and they also make Hamlet’s father seem powerful and noble by describing him as a composite of several major deities, and associating him with a lineage of historical power.

Allusion in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger

In John Osborne’s 1957 play Look Back in Anger, the character Jimmy alludes to the Second World War in order to contrast his generation’s perceived lack of purpose with the sacrifice and duty his parents’ generation demonstrated in fighting the spread of fascism in Europe.

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you.

Note that Osborne never mentions the war outright. Instead, the audience is expected to piece together the subject of the allusion from contextual clues, such as the reference to dying for a good cause, or the “thirties and forties.” In addition, Osborne also alludes to the line “brave new world,” which Miranda says in Shakespeare’s The Tempest when she first encounters other people after her lifetime of growing up alone with her father on their island. (The title of the novel Brave New World also alludes to Miranda’s lines.) Here Jimmy alludes to Miranda’s lines in order to invoke the idea of a Brave New World—some miraculous possible place full of noble ideas—and then deny any such thing exists for him. Jimmy is saying that he has been forced to live in a world without any big noble ideas or bright hope for a future, and so his words “Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you” alludes to the idea of those bright ideals and future in order to deny them.

Allusion in Speeches

Allusion is a powerful tool for speechwriters, because the device creates a sense of community between the speaker and their audience. Many of the most persuasive speeches make listeners feel that they have shared experience with a speaker, who seems to be speaking “their language.”

Allusion in the Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

As Martin Luther King, Jr. began to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a massive audience at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., he made an allusion to Abraham Lincoln.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago a great American in whose symb­olic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Rather than mention Abraham Lincoln by name, King alludes to him by imitating the opening of the historic “Gettysburg Address” (“Four score and seven years ago. “). Through this use of allusion, King establishes a link between his vision of liberty and Lincoln’s, and he suggests that he and his fellow Americans are taking a step that is connected to and as equally historic as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Allusion in Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

In his Second Inaugural Address, president Barack Obama fostered a sense of community and inclusiveness by alluding to important moments in the history of American civil rights.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal —is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall , just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

President Obama’s speech begins with an allusion to some of the most memorable passages from the Constitution (“We, the people, of the United States of America”) and the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”). The speech then goes on to refer to Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall—an alliterative list of major moments in the history of American civil rights movements for woman, African Americans, and gay rights. By referring to these historic moments without explicitly describing what they achieved, the president suggests that the activists’ achievements are widely known among Americans, which is itself a marker of success. Finally, Obama refers to Martin Luther King by calling him “a preacher” and “a king,” punning on King’s name. With this series of allusions, Obama implicitly likens his historical moment to other moments of social progress in America.

Allusion in Film and Television

Directors and screenwriters often incorporate allusions to other films in their work, particularly if they want to subtly acknowledge the films that inspired them. Since film is a multimedia form, allusions in film can be visual (as in architecture), verbal (as in literature), or even musical, as seen below.

Allusion in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

In an iconic scene from John Hughes’s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Cameron drops his father’s priceless Ferrari off at a parking garage in Chicago. Unbeknownst to Cameron, the valet promptly takes the Ferrari for a joy ride. As the Ferrari speeds down a hilly street, it takes flight to the tune of the Star Wars theme—a musical allusion to George Lucas’s groundbreaking series of science fiction films. John Hughes gets a lot of mileage (so to speak) out of this allusion. It nods to his love of George Lucas, it heightens the sense of the valet’s childish glee, and it enhances the scene’s humor, since the triumphant theme is at odds with the horror that Cameron would feel if he knew what was happening to his dad’s car.

Allusion in 500 Days of Summer

In this scene from 500 Days of Summer, the film’s lovestruck protagonist plays a game of chess against Cupid. Unlike the rest of the film, this scene is shot in black and white and uses an aged film effect. The style and content of the scene make it a not-so-subtle allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays a game of chess against Death. This nod to a classic film not only introduces an element of melodrama at a point in the film in which the protagonist is suffering from heartbreak, but it also puts the film in direct dialogue with the work of a distinguished and revered filmmaker.

Why Do Writers Use Allusions?

Writers or speakers may use allusions for a wide variety of reasons:

  • To create a sense of cultural kinship between storyteller and listener, since those who pick up on allusions have a sense of being “in the know.”
  • To efficiently convey big ideas, or refer to stories that would take too long to explain.
  • To deepen and enrich the meaning of a text by adding a layer that may not be obvious to all readers.
  • To add dimension to a work by relating it to other texts.
  • To invite readers to reflect on the similarities between their own lives and the lives of authors or characters being alluded to.
  • To place their work in dialogue with the work of those who influenced them.
  • To demonstrate their own cultural literacy, or test that of their readers or listeners.

However, when a writer makes use of allusion too frequently, or without making accurate assumptions about whether their audience will understand, it can have the negative effect of alienating readers, or making the writer seem like a show-off.

Why does the writer use the allusion in the essay

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How to Use Allusion Effectively

Reading that sentence, you immediately know John thinks the person he’s referring to is not a principled individual. In fact, using Mother Teresa as a reference point, you learn a lot about both John and how he views this woman. You infer his opinion instantly, and depending on what comes before and after this comment, you learn more about John and how he thinks.

And you get all of this information from a simple allusion.

What Is Allusion?

An allusion is a literary device that adds meaning to your work by alluding or referring to a person, place, or thing that’s considered common knowledge. This could be a reference to a work of art or literature, a famous person, a popular location, a historic event, a cultural norm, etc., that readers use to understand your implication.

Instead of saying, “She was loving, kind, giving, and unselfish and spent her life helping those less fortunate,” you could write, “She rivaled Mother Teresa.” It’s a succinct way to give your readers an instant understanding. Many writers allude to mythology, Shakespeare, and other literature to prompt readers to flesh out their meaning.

An allusion requires a few features: it must be brief, indirect, and reference something else. Usually, an allusion references something historical or in another art form. You can also reference pop culture or current events.

Allusions must be brief. If your allusion requires a more detailed explanation, you move into the territory of extended metaphors or comparisons. Similarly, an allusion should be indirect. Imagine if John in the above example went on to say that Mother Teresa was highly regarded for her acts of service to the poor, but the person he’s talking about has no empathy and is very selfish. This is no longer an allusion. In John’s over-explanation, he weakens his comparison.

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Allusion is a powerful tool—but only if you’ve got your spellings right. Making a reference but misspelling the name of the person or object you are alluding to distracts your reader at best and completely derails your meaning at worst.

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Allusion vs. Metaphor

There are several literary devices that involve comparison. Metaphor is one of the most common devices. In a metaphor, you compare two unlike things. Here are a couple of examples.

  • “All the world’s a stage” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It
  • “He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed”

A metaphor can include an allusion. For example, you could say, “Susan is the Da Vinci of pastry chefs.” It’s a metaphor because you are comparing Susan, a pastry chef, to an artist and inventor. It’s also an allusion to a historical artist. There’s no need to elaborate to explain that Susan makes beautiful, elaborate pastries.

An extended metaphor is another rhetorical device. We could elaborate on Susan’s skills by adding more references to beautiful art.

  • “Susan is the Da Vinci of pastry chefs. The dough is her canvas, the ganache is her paint. She sculpts statues of cakes.”

Similes are similar to metaphors, but they use “like” or “as” for comparison. A famous example is from the movie Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Like metaphors, similes can include an allusion. We could say, “Susan, the pastry chef, is like Da Vinci when she bakes.”

Allusion vs. Analogy

Another common literary device that involves comparison is analogy. It can be easy to confuse allusion and analogy, so let’s discuss the differences. An analogy is similar to a metaphor because it compares two things. These things may be alike or unlike. The difference is in the intent. A metaphor is a device to show a difference. An analogy’s goal is to explain the difference.

  • “His voice was as annoying as fingernails on a chalkboard.”
  • “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet. ” from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

An analogy can include allusion. Remember, an allusion is just a comparison to some person, event, book, art form, etc. – “The game was as terrible of a defeat as Waterloo.” – “She’s as beautiful as Helen of Troy.”


Examples of Allusion

We use allusion in our everyday speech when we use phrases like, “Don’t open Pandora’s Box,” “This is her 15 minutes of fame,” or “I’m stuck in a Catch-22.” When an allusion crops up in common speech, you know exactly what the person is referring to with no need for them to explain their meaning.

Examples of literary allusions include:

  • The title The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, which alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
  • Shakespeare alludes to his own Julius Caesar in Hamlet.
  • Walden by Thoreau alludes to Olympus from Greek mythology when he compares nature to Mt. Olympus, where the gods lived.

An allusion can also be subtle, sometimes used to foreshadow. This example uses historical context to foreshadow defeat:

  • “The coming day would prove to be Arthur’s Waterloo.”
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Why Use Allusion?

You can easily simplify more complex thoughts and emotions by alluding to common references. When writers allude to mythology, they’re bringing the mystical and magical to their work. And when they refer to the Bible, such as calling someone a “Good Samaritan,” they’re bringing in religious undertones.

You may refer to someone as a “Scrooge” or “Romeo” to identify their characters to your readers. And quixotic, which means extravagant or unrealistic, is a direct allusion to Cervantes’ character Don Quixote. Allusions can enhance your writing by offering further meaning, or you can use them ironically to compare two dissimilar things. It’s a great tool to reveal unspoken assumptions and biases.

One thing to note when using allusion is you shift the responsibility for understanding your meaning to your readers. Carefully choose your allusions so you don’t make your readers work too hard to figure out what you’re trying to say.

Problems with Allusion

Sometimes allusion eludes us. For example, James Joyce was deliberately obscure, which is why his work is so hard to get through for some people.

When Joseph Conrad wrote the following passage in Heart of Darkness, he was referring to Greek mythology:

  • “The two knitting women increase his anxiety of gazing at him and all the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest that they know what will happen, yet don’t care.”

“Two knitting women” alludes to the Fates in Greek mythology and how they knit human life. This foreshadows the upcoming terrifying and horrific journey.

There’s a lesson to learn from Conrad here: make sure your allusions match your tone and your audience. I used to teach history, and I have a degree in anthropology. My readers don’t. Just because I understand an allusion doesn’t make it accessible to my audience. Obscure Russian literature and advanced scientific allusions will sail right over my head.

If you’re writing high fantasy, don’t allude to something in the real world. In my first book, I need to describe a character in a certain way. All I could think of was “Casanova.” But Casanova doesn’t exist in my fantasy world, so I had to search out another term. Likewise, if your story takes place in a different historical time or culture, make sure your allusions make sense. Don’t say “All’s quiet on the Western front” if your book takes place in 1600s India.

Think about your target audience. Non-fiction writers can often make more specific allusions because their target audience is similar to them. If you’re writing Young Adult or Middle Grade fiction, your allusions should make sense to that age group.

Final Thoughts

Now that you understand allusion, you’ll spot it everywhere, not just in literature. Think of a person’s “Achilles’ heel” or someone who’s “an Einstein.” Someone’s greatest accomplishment could be their “ninth symphony.”

What’s your favorite allusion? Let us know in the comments below how you use allusion in your everyday speech and your writing.

Allusion Examples and Why You Need Allusion in Your Writing

Allusion can be a powerful way to connect to your readers, whether you are writing fiction, news editorial pieces, or poetry. Here are some famous examples of allusion and how you can use this stylistic literary device in your writing.

Allusion Examples and Why You Need Allusion in Your Writing

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Allusion is a powerful writing technique that can help you connect with your audience. L Today we’ll share some powerful examples of allusion and give you some tips and techniques to use allusion to better connect with your audience.

What is Allusion?

Allusion is an implied or indirect reference to a person, place, event, or circumstance in your writing. With allusion, you don’t ever specifically say what the reference may be. Instead, you hint or suggest at what you may be referencing.

When we use allusion in our writing, we may hint at something or casually mention something, but we never go into details or specifics. Instead, we leave it up to the readers to make a connection to the implied reference.

definition of allusion

Here is The Definition of Allusion:

allusion: an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; an indirect or passing reference.

Some of the synonyms for allusion are: to reference, mention of, suggestion of, remark on, hint to, imitation of, comment about.

The best way to understand this technique is to look at some different examples of allusion.

Common Examples of Allusion

The best way to really understand allusion is to look at different examples of how it is used. This stylistic device has been used as a writing technique in books, news articles, and even speeches.

In fact, one of the most famous examples is a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered at the March on Washington in 1963.

martin luther king

Famous Allusion Example: I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Martin Luther King speech I Have a Dream begins like this:

“Five-score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The use of “Five-Score years ago” in the first sentence alludes to another popular speech by President Abraham Lincoln nearly 100 years earlier.

Lincoln’s speech The Gettysburg Address was an important speech during the time of The Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

Here is how the speech by Lincoln begins:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

This is a great example. Note how Martin Luther King simply says “Five-score years ago, a great American…” – he does not say “100 years ago, Abraham Lincoln …”

In the speech, it is a reference to Lincoln, but does not directly say this. This use of this technique makes the speech all that much more powerful.

Christmas Allusion Examples

Have you ever called someone a Grinch? Or perhaps said, “Bah, Humbug!” to mean someone being grumpy about the holiday season? You might even say someone is lacking “Christmas Spirit”. These references come to us from the classic books How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

We don’t say, “You are being a grouch!” – we use allusion when we reference these classic tales of someone who doesn’t like the holiday seasons.

Shakespeare and Allusion

Many people often reference Shakespeare in their writing. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo was actually courting a different person before falling madly and deeply in love with Juliet. Calling someone a Romeo often suggests they are interested in multiple people or it can mean that they are prone to falling recklessly in love with someone.

Again, what makes this allusion is that we don’t come out and say, “He’s just like Romeo from Shakespeare’s famous play” – we just call someone a Romeo and leave it at that. It’s up to the audience to make the connection.

Character Development Examples That Use Allusion

Another example of ways we see allusion used in writing is through character development. Many characters in modern stories are created in reference to other characters that we’ve already been introduced to.

Disney for example makes the character King Triton in The Little Mermaid closely resemble Poseidon from mythology.

By creating a reference for your characters to a person of history or significance, it’s easier for readers to relate to the character. Readers may already have some familiarity with the character you are referencing to. When you reference another character, it is easier for the reader to associate with the character.

Oftentimes, writers reference biblical or mythological characters. The Bible is a very common work that many writers allude to. One example is the fairy tale Snow White.

Have you ever wondered why the evil queen in Snow White tries to trick Snow White with an apple? This is a Biblical reference to the story of Adam and Eve, where Eve is tricked by the snake in the garden to eat an apple.

Allusion Examples That Use Subtle Suggestion

Of course, not all examples of allusion are as famous or easy to spot. Many times we use this literary device and may not even be aware we are using it!

In everyday situations, we often may allude to something without actually ever saying it. Asking someone “Was traffic bad?” could be an example of indirectly asking why someone is running late.

This can be a very powerful technique when you are writing a novel. In fiction, it is an excellent way to show, not tell in your writing.

If you write any type of mystery or crime thriller novel, allusion may help the audience piece together the story while they read. Indirect references to past or future events in a story can help with foreshadowing and build up suspense.

Why and How to Use Allusion in Your Writing

allusion in writing

Allusion has many practical applications. Whether you are writing a novel or writing an editorial news article, there actually are a lot of benefits to using this literary style in your writing!

Here are some of the reasons you might want to use allusion in your writing:

1. Stronger Connection to Your Audience: When your audience is able to catch a reference you make, they will automatically feel connected to a greater sense of you as a writer, your characters, and even an entire community or culture.

2. It Builds Authority and Trust: When you refer to something indirectly that is common about a certain topic or industry, it can show to your audience that you are knowledgeable and experienced. Being able to suggest different references shows familiarity with a topic.

3. Add Meaning and Symbolism: Using indirect hints in your writing can help give your work added meaning and symbolism. In the Martin Luther King example we shared above, alluding to The Gettysburg Address makes the work all that more powerful.

4. Works for a Variety of Writing Styles: This type of literary device can be used for almost any type of writing style. If you are writing a news opinion piece, allusion can help connect your readers to a greater cause. If you are writing a descriptive essay, the use of allusion can help your readers better visualize the scene. Allusion can also work very well for comedy – many comedic pieces rely on subtle suggestions for the audience to notice.

5. Show, Don’t Tell: One of the biggest pieces of writing advice is “show, don’t tell“. This means you want to allow your readers to feel and visualize the scene – not tell them exactly what is happening. It takes some practice to master this skill, and writing with allusion is a great way to achieve this.

As you can see, writing with this technique can really have a lot of benefits!

Creative Writing Exercise: Practice Writing With Indirect References

One of the best ways to become a better writer is with creative writing exercises. The more you practice, the easier it is to naturally use these different literary stylistic devices. In fact, you may find yourself using these techniques without even realizing it!

To practice writing, one easy way is to take something you have already written. Go through the piece and start thinking of any associations you may think of while you read. For example, if you are writing a scene about baseball, you could start thinking about different baseball players you could reference: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, or Hank Aaron.

This is also a great technique to practice when writing poetry. You could easily take many of our 100+ poetry writing prompts and use these as a starting point to practice the art of subtle suggestion and reference in your writing!

What Are Your Thoughts on Using Allusion in Writing?

Have you tried using this technique in your own writing? What famous allusion reference examples in literature have you spotted? Do you have any questions or experiences to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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College of Engineering | Computer Science and Engineering

While Michigan State University is operating remotely due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering will also be operating remotely. Please contact our staff via email or phone, and someone will respond to you shortly. You can find specific contact information here.

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Rosenblum Award Provides Valuable Research Opportunity

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Welcome to the Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Abdol-Hossein Esfahanian

What an exciting time to be a computer scientist! Connected, computational devices permeate every aspect of modern life. Computational thinking and programming have joined mathematics, reading, and writing as essential skills for every student regardless of major. Right now, our department faces a myriad of opportunities and challenges. I am delighted to report that our faculty, staff, students, and alumni are embracing the opportunities and overcoming the challenges as they provide leadership and innovative solutions across all of our missions of education, research, and outreach.

In education, we are meeting the ever-increasing interest in computer science from majors as well as non-majors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels by strategically expanding our offerings including our new Bachelor of Science in Computational Data Science degree program. At more than 1,700 students as of Fall 2021, our programs are now the largest in the College of Engineering and one of the largest across MSU. We ensure a high-quality educational experience through a carefully tailored blend of fundamentals and cutting-edge technologies. Learning fundamental underlying principles helps our students build successful life-long careers in today’s rapidly changing world. Working with state-of-the-art technologies helps our students obtain high-quality first jobs. Our students and graduates are in high demand by local, state, national, and international companies as well as by elite graduate programs in top universities.

In research, we provide leadership in applying computational approaches to solve significant hardware, software, and data problems across a wide range of disciplines. You will find faculty working on artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, big data, internet of things, digital organisms, telemedicine, and computational approaches to law enforcement, biometrics, and security. In addition to their individual research, many of our faculty participate in funded interdisciplinary projects with collaborators from both inside and outside MSU.

In outreach, our faculty and students participate in numerous programs and activities designed to attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds to ensure we build and maintain a more diverse and inclusive community. We also provide technical leadership to improve the academic systems developed and used across MSU.

We are particularly proud of our graduates. Our alumni are active near and far, developing innovative technologies and solving hard multidisciplinary problems. Please share your success stories with us, and we will highlight selected stories on our web site.

It is indeed an exciting time to be a computer scientist. I am extremely honored and humbled to lead our department into the future as we continue to move forward to embrace new opportunities and overcome new challenges.

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