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Understanding Allusion Through Famous Examples from Literature

Allusion examples are found in abundance in literary works. Here are some examples of allusions, which will help you to understand the subject better.

“I wish I had received blessings from Cupid, on Valentine’s day,” whispers Aeon to herself. Chianz sadly utters to his dad, “if the bomb massacre hadn’t hit Hiroshima, the city would have blossomed and people would have had a better life.” You must be wondering why I am citing these lines and making a direct reference to the Roman God of Love and one of the most catastrophic historical event. The answer is, to exemplify allusion.

Allusion is a literary device used to explain or clarify a complex problem by the act of alluding (referring). Reference is made to a place, historical event, literary work, mythological characters, religious books, myth or a work of art. Allusions can be a direct form of reference or an implication. Literary allusions are thus, an explicit or implicit reference to another literary piece which can be understood and recognized by the reader.

The famous American critic, M.H. Abrams defines allusion as “a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work or passage.”

William Irwin says that an allusion is unidirectional. He justifies his statement by saying, “The Bible does not allude to William Shakespeare, though Shakespeare may allude to Holy Bible.” He puts forth his view about the unidirectional attribute of allusions by saying, “only a divine author, outside time, would seem capable of alluding to a later text.” It is for this reason, that the passages from The Old Testament are often cited as allusion examples in literature.

Allusion Examples in Literature

There are plethora of examples of allusion in literature, contributed to plays, prose and poetry. Though the list is long, we have picked up the quintessential references that will make your concept clear about this subject.

Dante Alighieri’s, 14th century epic poem Divine Comedy, has numerous allusions. Let’s analyze some examples from the first part, Inferno.

Icarus and Phaethon

I doubt if Phaethon feared more – that time
he dropped the sun-reins of his father’s chariot
and burned the streak of sky we see today –
or if poor Icarus did – feeling his sides
unfeathering as the wax began to melt,
his father shouting: “wrong, your course is wrong.”

In this stanza, Dante alludes to the Greek mythology. Phaethon and Icarus are Greek mythological characters, that are alluded to evince his fear as he falls down from air into the eighth circle of hell.

You might have come across many literary works where Noah, the last of the antediluvian Patriarchs is alluded quite often. The story of Noah explained in the Genesis, is often alluded, where he represents a man who had no faults and was the only good man of his time.


Noah’s flood or biblical Ark of Noah, is also spotted as allusion example while describing a heavy downpour that lasted for forty days and forty nights. Similarly Jesus is also alluded as an example of self sacrifice to save mankind.

Another example is Jonah, who was devoured by a fish as written in the ‘Book of Jonah’, is used as an allusion device. A writer represents him this way, “as the cave’s roof collapsed, he was swallowed up in the dust like Jonah, and only his frantic scrabbling behind a wall of rock indicated that there was anyone still alive.”

Romeo and Juliet

Now read this speech of Romeo, from Shakespeare’s famous play ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

Here, Ethiope is an allusion for Ethiopia. Shakespeare alludes the Ethiopian slaves who often dwelt in Moorish harems, decking themselves with expensive jewelry in their ears to impress upon all who saw them the wealth of their masters.


Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;

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These lines from HAMLET have many allusions. Hyperion, Jove, Mars, Mercury are Greek and Roman mythological characters are alluded to by Shakespeare.

Examples of allusion in poetry and proses also bear the same significance. Allusion in poetry is distinguished from quotation, reinscription, intertextuality and echo. It’s because, had it been similar, then a poetry would merely be a plagiarized piece. I shall throw light on some more examples.

Here’s the poem of Robert Frost, where the title, ‘Out, Out – ‘, itself is an allusion to Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the sequence being Macbeth speaking about life, after the death of Lady Macbeth, ‘Out, out, brief candle!’

Emily Dickinson’s poem, All Overgrown by Cunning Moss has alluded to Currer Bell and Haworth in the first paragraph of the poem.

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

The object, person and the event alluded to differs depending upon the origin of the poetry. For example, Christian poetry alludes the Bible and English poetry makes use of Classical allusion. Islamic poetry draws reference from the Koran, while the renowned Chinese poet Du Fu alludes to past illustrations of allusions.

In order to distinguish allusion from echo, Elizabeth Bishop has explicitly made reference to Herbert in her poem Wading at Wellfleet by keeping the line, all a case of knives in quotation marks.

Adam and Eve

Here’s a very apt example of allusion in the poem The Prelude. In the 14th line of this poem, William Wordsworth has alluded to one of the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Wordsworth writes, the earth was all before me, and alludes to Milton’s lines the world was all before them. Whereas the lines from Paradise Lost is alluding to the story of Adam and Eve in the Genesis.

In the poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, has alluded to the lines written by Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Webster St. Augustine, Baudelaire, etc. When you have understood allusion perfectly you can refer poems of renowned poets to find out the allusions and references used. Here is a list of poems you can go through.

A Dialog between Old England and New – Anne Bradstreet
A little East of Jordan – Emily Dickinson
A Farewell to Tobacco – Charles Lamb
A Woman on the Dump – Debora Greger
Africadian Petition – George Elliott Clarke
Beyond Words – Kevin Young
Bright Star, Would I were Steadfast as Thou Art – John Keats
Bronzes – Carl Sandburg
Caliban upon Setebos – Robert Browning
Call Me Pier – Susan Firer
Adam’s Prayer – Amanda Jernigan
Ah! Sun-flower – William Blake
Christabel – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coy Mistress – Annie Finch
Discourse on Pure Virtue – George Elliott Clarke
Love-Lily – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Magnificat – Eleanor Wilner
Morality – Matthew Arnold
Robin Hood – John Keats
The Calm – John Donne
The Divine Image – William Blake
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – T. S. Eliot
The Magi – William Butler Yeats
The Three Enemies – Christina Rossetti
To Homer – John Keats
To the Muses – William Blake

Aslan, The Great Lion from The Chronicles of Narnia

Allusion examples for kids can be from various comic characters, story books, nursery rhymes, animation, fiction movies, fairy tales, etc. Examples of allusions can be cited from the animated movie, The Chronicles of Narnia where the characters White Witch, Mrs. Lefay, and Prince Rilian are alluded to Snow Queen of Hans Christian Andersen, Hamlet of Shakespeare, and Morgan Le Fay of King Arthur stories, respectively. The best example of direct allusion in this movie is Aslan, representing Jesus

A Christmas Carol

‘Christy didn’t like to spend money. She was no Scrooge, but she seldom purchased anything except the bare necessities’.. Can you spot the allusion here? In this line direct allusion is being made to Scrooge, who is the famous character depicting ‘pinches pennies’ in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol.

The very mention of King Solomon’s Mines in any story or literary piece, alludes to the riches to be found. Comic books have become the very basis of allusion used in fiction and art. Allusions made to Superman or Batman is understood not only by children but also by adults. Allusions examples can also be found in renowned novels like Alice in Wonderland, The Famous Five, etc.

Harry Potter Series

In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has alluded to many mythological names, astronomy and folklore. Sirius Black as Padfoot, Dog Star are the names having implicit references to constellations. Remus Lupin’s code name as Romulus in The Deathly Hallows alludes directly to Roman mythology. The three headed dog, Fluffy is also an allusion of the Greek mythological creature, Cerberus. Next time you read the books or watch the movies, do not forget to spot out allusions.

I hope with these examples, you can understand allusions in literary works. You have to study literature in-depth, analyze and then try to relate the examples to other elements in order to identify allusions.

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