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Allusion in Poetry
Allusion, according to Handbook of Literature by C. Hugh Holman, The Odyssey Press, “is a figure of speech making an informal reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event.” According to definitions in various literature and composition textbooks, 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.
Okay, young man in the back, what’s the problem? I hear you whisper. Maybe I can answer your question better than your neighbor.
“Uh, well, I just think maybe you confused something. Isn’t a hint 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. An illusion is something that is not actually seen or that does not really exist.
One example of an allusion would be something like “Like a modern Daniel, the brave little boy stepped onto the playground to confront the school bully.” The reference to Daniel from the Bible, who faced hungry lions, reminds us of courage. Another allusion might be “The Paul Bunyon of a man filled the small room.”
An illusion could be “Jim Ross told everyone about the flying saucer he saw in the night sky. His wife shook her head in disbelief. ‘You also say you saw me striptease on the front porch, illusions the result of too – drinking 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 judgment.” TS Eliot employs complex literary allusion in his The Waste Land and in his notes on that poem.
I use allusion sometimes, 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 tear through the darkness of the night
How chaos reigns in sleeping minds.
Fighting echoing cries to consciousness,
Those once asleep find themselves
Now huddled in fear under the covers.
Fire flickers through the filter of eyelids,
While those braver than the rest peep
To glimpse shadows of nightmares
Remains in joy of tears flowing
Under the cheeks of those too scared to run.
Then faith extends its hopeful hand
To touch and tame the scary madness
That only Hell can bring to those who live.
The hero of a demon-filled existence
It is He who loves man the most.
The allusion to Hell brings to mind the agony that can be found there.
To live forever
Who wants to live forever?
So the pain of heart and limbs Can endure always lasting?
Discomfort will grow every day
Until I don’t want to stay.
Talk about immortality,
I could say hello to my grandchildren
Generation for many years.
But when their time is gone,
I would be overwhelmed with tears.
I could watch history go by
With war, disease, desert.
Leaders would rise and then fall,
Bringing hope, sometimes despair,
But never a long term concern.
I don’t want to live forever
Not in this world we know now.
I want to know that someday
i will be able to escape
To a place not full of hate.
Who wants to live forever?
In a place of cloudless sky,
Of love, peace and endless joy,
Sunlight shines without a storm,
Glory found in every form.
I will take eternal life
In the place where He lives,
To know that everyone there
No need to be separated
Nor ever feel imprisoned.
No pain, no sickness, no tears
Will see much less familiar,
War, a word not even heard.
Yes, I will live forever
Once I cross the Jordan River.
In the Bible, the river Jordan meant 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 remember? 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.
Because an eight-year-old is not poetic,
He packed snow into a ball
And threw with all his might,
Knocking the hat off her head.
Imagine his surprise as she swirled
And fire returned, striking his breast,
Where love for her blossomed.
Over the years, fast friends
They became as they jumped
Hand in hand through school.
His junior prom, she was his date,
As he was for her the next.
After he left for college,
Letters, like winged flames,
Flew from him to her every week.
The summer became a time of joy
As they rebuilt their love again.
In autumn, they had to part again,
He back to the next level;
She, to the city college.
Once full of love and laughter,
Messages came from her
Slower and shorter each time.
Soon, before Christmas, they stopped.
Before the end of the semester, he heard
She gave her love to another.
His heart turned to stone.
Years passed, he made a fortune,
But he never had a family.
Finally the loner returned home
To find his lost love not only
Wife of another, but 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,
Driver did not pause or stop.
Many attended the funeral
With one woman behind.
Tears pooled and poured
Before she wiped her face,
Turned, and slipped away.
Only later did she know
He left her not only his heart
But all he had.
Unknown to her, he was more,
Her Sir Galahad: Though he wore
Tarnished, rusted armor.
I hope you will try to use allusion in your poetry, for a little image if nothing else, but also try to see if the device can add a dose of emotion.
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