Allusion Literary Device: Definition, 5 Types & Examples

What is allusion?

Usually, an implicit reference, perhaps to another work of literature or art, to a person or an event. It is often a kind of appeal to a reader to share some experience with the writer.

An allusion may enrich the work by association and give it depth. When using allusions a writer tends to assume an established literary tradition, a body of common knowledge with an audience sharing that tradition, and an ability on the part of the audience to ‘pick up’ the reference.

Types of Allusion:

  1. Historical allusion
  2. Literary allusion
  3. Mythological allusion
  4. Pop cultural allusion
  5. Biblical allusion

Writers often use these kinds of references in drama and literature for millennia.  Among some of the most prominent practitioners include Dryden’s and Pope’s satires, Shakespeare’s puns on Will, Donne’s pun on Donne, Anne and Undone; metaphorical allusion in T.S. Eliot’s work and imitative allusion in Johnson’s to Juvenal in London.

Purpose of Allusion

It is almost a language in itself a kind of shorthand that writers use for a number of reasons, including:

  • To set up a framework within a story world
  • Give readers and viewers the pleasure
  • Get thematic quality with other works
  • Make connections and to establish meaning quickly

Examples of Allusion

  • You are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders (Atlas in myth)
  • That man is so narcissistic (Narcissus in mythology)
  • I guess I should see this message about a new job as my burning bush (Biblical Allusion)
  • Your backyard is a Garden of Eden. (Biblical allusion)
  • You’re a regular Einstein (allusion to a historical figure)

Allusion Examples in Poetry

In “All Overgrown by Cunning Moss” by Emily Dickinson

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”
In quiet “Haworth” laid.

In this poem, the poet makes an allusion to Currer Bell, which was the pen name for English author Charlotte Bronte. Dickinson also alludes to the English villages of Haworth, where Bronte died and was later buried.

“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

In this poem, the mention of April being “the cruelest month” sharply contrasts with the opening of medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which describes April as a cheerful, live

Allusion Example in Literature

The Outsiders (1967) by S.E. Hinton

“Ponyboy.”

I barely heard him. I came closer and leaned over

to hear what he was going to say.

“Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold… “The pillow seemed

to sink a little, and Johnny died.

The line “stay gold, Ponyboy” is an example of both external and internal allusion.  In the novel, Ponyboy and Johnny talk about Robert Frost’s famous poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”.

When Johnny later tells Ponyboy to “stay gold” as he lay dying, this is both an external allusion (in that it refers to the poem by Frost) and an internal allusion (in that it alludes to the boys’ previous discussion and analysis of the poem).

Allusion Literary Device examples
Allusion Literary Device examples

Further Reading

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