allusion in poetryIntroduction

Poems commonly include words or phrases borrowed from the poetry of other authors, {1} but allusion means more than plagiarism or poetic diction, and something other than extended simile. Matters have become somewhat technical, and criticism today tends to distinguish 1. reinscription (amplifications of previous texts), 2. quotation (taking over the previous text in its entirety, including concept and texture), 3. echo (lacking conscious intention) and 4. intertextuality (involuntary incorporation of previous word usage and associations). {2}

A literary allusion is an explicit or implicit reference to another literary text that can be recognized and understood as such by competent readers. {3}


Allusion is used to:
1. display literary knowledge or cleverness.
2. advertise membership of a poetic tradition or community.
3. add historical depth to a word or phrase.
4. suggest an association with literary excellence.

5. show topicality by reference to recent events.
6. sharpen contrasts, as in satire.
7. imply a generality of experience: often the human condition.

Cultural Considerations

Allusion is the staple of many poetic traditions. Islamic poetry draws heavily on the Koran, as Jewish {4} and Christian {5} {6} poetry does on the Bible. Until the late nineteenth century, and even beyond, {7} English poetry also made much use of Classical allusion.{8} The Chinese indeed expect to find repeated allusion in poetry, and some of Du Fu's late poems, for example, have every word or phrase alluding to usage in the illustrious past. Japanese poetry even laid down rules governing its use. {9} Modernist poetry also employs its own brand of allusion, generally more personal and sometimes obscure. {10} {11}


Renaissance poets tended not merely to make reference to the classical past but to extend and modify classical allusions for their own purposes, commonly to assert nationhood or literary independence. Edmund Spenser's Shepherdes Calendar accepted the pastoral mode of Theocritus with its autumnal mood, but added political denunciation. His Faerie Queene went further, converting the poema cavalleresco of Lodovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso into an extended allegory constructed around Aristotle's twelve moral virtues. {12}


Distinctions between allusion and echo tend to blur in practice, but Philip Larkin's Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives in his poem Deceptions would be an echo of George Herbert's My thoughts are all a case of knives in his poem Affliction because the reference seems to have been unconscious. Elizabeth Bishop, however, explicitly makes reference to Herbert in her poem Wading at Wellfleet by putting all a case of knives within quotation marks. {1}

Classical Allusion: Pope

A famous example comes in line 176 of Alexander Pope's Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington: {13}

Yet hence the poor are cloth'd, the hungry fed;
Health to himself, and to his infants bread
The lab'rer bears: What his hard heart denies,
His charitable vanity supplies.

Another age shall see the golden ear
Embrown the slope, and nod on the parterre,
Deep harvests bury all his pride has plann'd,
And laughing Ceres reassume the land.

And laughing Ceres is not only beautiful but strikingly apt, referring to the earth goddess (Demeter) of wheat and grain, who spread knowledge of the agricultural arts. The ostentatious country house will be given over to the plough, and the land made productive again.

Development: Pound's Cantos (1925-60)

Whatever their originating misconception, Pound took the high road of allusion in his Cantos. Allusions were initially simple quotes, which evoked the work from which they were taken, giving the Cantos a thickness and seriousness of meaning. But they could also be juxtaposed, which set up shocks and interrelations in the reader. By 1927, the approach had developed into what Pound called ideograms, where the component images interacted 'simultaneously to present a complex of meaning'. {14} Take, for example, lines 36-44 of Canto XXX:

Came Madam 'Yle
Clothed with the light of the altar
And with the price of the candles.
"Honour? Balls for yr honour!
Take two million and swallow it."
               Is come Messire Alfonso
And is departed by boat for Ferrara
And has passed here without saying 'O'.

Pound is referring to the proxy marriage of Alfonso d'Este to Lucrezia Borgia (whom he calls Madame Hyle, the Greek word for matter), which reflects the sexual and monetary corruption of the Papacy under the Borgias. In larger context, this and surrounding stanzas illustrate Pound's belief that Baroque art had subverted the purity of the Italian primitives, and that the taste and vigour of families like the d'Este were preferable to the 'usury' of contemporary banking institutions. {15)

Pound's phrasing is like no other, with a mischievous parody of diplomatic language (is departed. . . ), pungent humour and the sly reference to the Borgias counting the cost of the wedding candles. A wide range of matters is brought into play, and it is difficult to see how the complex emotional timbre could be achieved in other ways.

: Historical and Topical Allusion

The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders
Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
               by the heels at Milano {16}

The lines conflate the Fascist claims to bring social justice to Italy with the deaths of both the founder of the Manichaen religion and of Benito Mussolini and his mistress in the closing stages of WWII. Pound wrote this opening section of the Pisan Cantos when the death of his hero was still fresh in his mind, and when he himself faced prosecution for treason. The three fragments bridge the centuries and seem the more powerful for being presented without comment.

: Literary Parodies

Oh to be in England now that Winston's out
         Now that there's room for doubt
                     And the bank may be the nation's
                     And the long years of patience
                     And labour's vacillations
May have let the bacon come home, {17}

The section starts with a parody of Browning's Home Thoughts from Abroad, {18} and moves into political comment on the Labour Government returned in elections after WWII. Pound is still identifying with the Axis powers.

: Good Guy Stereotypes

Pound's allusions can also descend to a sort of chinoiserie, a simplistic view of the orient and elsewhere. His 'good guy's in Canto LV, for example, are not merely caricatures, but mishandle Chinese history.

Came OUEN-TSONG and kicked out 3000 fancies
         let loose the falcons
yet he also was had by the eunuchs after 15 years reign
OU-TSONG destroyed hochang pagodas,
          spent his time drillin' and huntin'
Brass idols turned into ha'pence
          chased out the bonzes from temples
          46 thousand temples . . . {19}

These allude to 'true events' of course, as PhD theses and student's guides demonstrate, {20} {21} {22} {23} but only in the sense that events in "A Child's First Book of the Saints" are true, as simple pictures. Economic matters, and more so the structure of Chinese society, {24} {25} {26} are too complex (and fascinating) to be properly represented by such cut-out figures. The allusions baffle the common reader and exasperate the knowledgeable, so failing in their primary task, which is to illustrate, support and enlarge our understanding of Pound's stress on good governance.

: Private Allusions

so that leaving America I brought with me $80
   and England a letter of Thomas Hardy's
   and Italy one eucalyptus pip
from the salita that goes up from Rapallo {27}

The allusions here are clear enough to anyone who knows Pound's life, but the memories, or rather what they meant to Pound, stay private.

: Pretension

If Basil sing of Shah Nameh, and wrote
           {Frdwsi in Farsi}
                                    Firdush' on his door
Thus saith Kabir: 'Politically' said Rabindranath
           they are inactive. They think, but then there is
climate, they think but it is warm or there are flies
or some insects' {28}

Pound was inclined to air his knowledge by playing the "village explainer". Persian and Hindi themes seem hardly relevant in this example, and even Firdush' is misspelt, unless this is one of Pound's chummy improvisations. Kabir {29} is a very different writer from Ferdowsi, {30} and Rabindranath Tagore's {31} comment seems little more than name-dropping. The switch to economic theory in the succeeding line leaves the quotation disappearing into the air.

:Some Conclusions

Are such 'complexes of meaning' really meanings at all, therefore, and do they cohere into larger units? Pound didn't write a traditional epic, and while certain themes appear in the poem, there is no story line or central character to hold the composition together. Repetitions and references to earlier sections thicken the weave, but don't add clarity.

Of course we can say that life is discontinuous, and that the shifting focus of the Cantos foreshadow the mix of events we see nightly on the news-channels In that regard, the Cantos have been an important influence on l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets and others. But art has always claimed to do more than mirror experience: it has claimed to give continuity, intensity and significance to events. Pound gives us a world of marvellous breadth, great beauty and intriguing comparisons, but it is also a looking-glass world where Pound the street barker is always appearing.

Allusions add to the emotional and semantic texture of poetry, and provide a generality of appeal even when we don't fully understand them. Pound's allusions often succeed because they are extraordinary evocative, freshly struck, mimic a great range of voices, are rhythmically deft and have a broad dash of humour. Nonetheless, all that admitted, the overall and finally disappointing effect is looseness, the variousness of what can be read into them. A few lines are delightful, an individual canto somewhat dizzying, and the poem as a whole a disorientating experience that leaves us distanced from ourselves and intellectually light-headed. Even the well-anthologized and more personal Pisan Cantos — which many expert readers {32} find the most moving — can appear somewhat egotistical, with Pound seemingly indifferent to the consequences of his views.

I personally find Pound a gloriously entertaining writer, and many years' reading of the Cantos have not diminished my enjoyment. Possibly the shortcomings of the approach are more Pound's, who was inclined to pass off pretence and obscurity as deeper meaning. Nonetheless, Pound's ideas are not always too interesting, and that limits how seriously we can take him. Allusion is an important element of poetry, but when it usurps others it becomes yet another example of 'perpetual revolution' in twentieth-century poetry.

Allusion by Awareness

Literary allusion is vast field of scholarship, even if focused on a single poet {33} or the similarities of allusion to heteroglossia. {34} Not strictly allusion, but still illuminating, is the way poets pick up ways of handling their material from near-contemporaries, {35} when their lines gain from keeping those other treatments in mind. Here are snippets of poems by writers who maintained a wary knowledge of each other's productions:

Philip Larkin's Home is So Sad: {36}

You can see how it was;
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

And Seamus Heaney's Old Pewter:

of illiteracy under rafters:
a dented hand-me-down old smoky plate
full of blizzards, sullied and temperate

Both express the universal yearning for home, but the first poem undercuts the happy clichés with particular instances, the pathos being held back behind the downbeat tone. The second is a commemoration of the rural community, the glimmering pewter perhaps being an emblem of the soul and its imperfections. {37} We have to say 'perhaps' because such a meaning can be read into the line, but is not compelled by it — i.e. the line is sufficient intriguing not to need the glosses of academia.

References and Resources

1. Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (OUP, 2002)
2. Literary Allusion and the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. Kerry McSweeney. Spring, 1999. Style article discussing use and misuse of allusion.
3. All American: Glossary of Literary Terms. NNA.
4. Biblical Allusion and Cognitive Processes. Reuven Tsur. Jan. 1998. NNA. How allusion may operate on our understanding.
5. Allusion to the Bible, Imagery, and Structure in Hopkins's Poetry. George P. Landow. NNA. The Victorian Web entry.
6. 'Let them sleepe': Donne's personal allusion in 'Holy Sonnet IV.' M. Thomas Hester. 1993. NNA. Papers on Language & Literature v.29 no3. p346-351.
7. American poems. Classical allusion in the poetry of 19 traditional and Modernist poets.
8. Allusion in NeoClassical Poetry. Gerald Lucas. Mar. 1996. NNA. Brief article, with example from Rape of the Lock.
9. Earl Miner, Allusion in A. Preminger and T.V.K. Brogan, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press. 1993). Brief but helpful entry.
10. Poetry and Private Language. Peter LaMarque. Readable introduction to a difficult subject.
11. Poetic Drama and the Art of Parodic Allusion: Wallace Stevens' Bowl, Cat, and Broomstick. Shaster Turner. Sep. 2004. NNA.
12. The Renaissance and the Age of Milton (1500-1660). Ana-Maria Tupan. 2004. NNA. Part of a Survey Course in English Literature.
13. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. NNA. Entry in the ever useful Representative Poetry Online site.
14. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Belknap Press, 1987), 229.
15. Michael Alexander, The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound (Faber and Faber, 1979), 169.
16. Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Faber and Faber, 1964), 451.
17. Ezra Pound 1964, 549.
18. Home Thoughts from Abroad, Robert Browning (181289)
19. Ezra Pound 1964, 303.
20. George Kearns, Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1980)
21. Peter Booker, A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (Faber, 1979)
22. William Cookson, Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (Anvil Press, 2000)
23. Christine Froula, To Write Paradise: Style and Error in Pound's Cantos (Yale Univ. Press, 1984)
24. Ann Paludin, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors (Thames and Hudson. 1998), 112-117.
25. Peng Xinwei, A Monetary History of China, trans. E.H. Kaplan (Western Washington Univ. 1994), 298-536.
26. F.W. Mote, Imperial China 900-1800. (Harvard Univ. Press 1999)
27. Ezra Pound 1964,
28. Ezra Pound 1964, 504.

29. Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi. Article on the poet and his work.
30. Kabir Mystic Philosopher: 1398-1518. Note, two poems and listings.
31. Rabindranath Tagore. NNA. Biography and some works online.
32. David Perkins, 1987, op. cit, 234-45.

33. Reuben A. Brower, Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion (Clarendon Press, 1959) Q
34. M. Keith Booker, Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature: Transgression, Abjection, and the Carnivalesque (Univ. of Florida Press, 1991). Q
35. Christopher Ricks, 2002. op. cit. 9-42.
36. Home is so Sad. Philip Larkin.
37. James Booth, The Turf Cutter and the Nine-to-Five Man: Heaney, Larkin, and "The Spiritual Intellect's Great Work". Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, 1997. Q Also: