What is an Allusion?

What is an Allusion? An In-depth Explanation of the Concept

If you're not very clear about this particular figure of speech, here are some good instances of allusion that would make this literary concept sink in, once for all.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Mar 19, 2018
Before we get to the example part, let me give you a brief, refresher-sort tutorial of what an allusion is. An allusion is a figure of speech. Allusions refer to those literary expressions that allude to something. As we all know, to allude to something means to hint at something in an indirect way, so that the meaning is conveyed or the object of reference is identified without directly naming it. In other words, you make an allusion when you refer to something either closely or by implying a quality, feature, characteristic or trait. In the literary sense, an allusion represents a person, place, piece of art or literature, occurrence, myth, and such a representation can be either express or implied. We can find numerous examples and instances of allusion in literature, including prose, poetry and popular culture which may be derived from the holy scriptures, historical events or mythology. A couple of historical speeches are also good examples of allusion. Let's take a look at some such literary examples to get a clear idea about this figure of speech.

Allusion in Poetry

Here are a few allusion examples in poetry that have been used beautifully to refer to an idea or person.
1. 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.

~ from Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington by Alexander Pope

2. 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'.

~ from The Cantos by Ezra Pound

Allusion in Literary Prose

We can find some of the most striking prosaical instances of allusion in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's epic romantic saga. One such example is:

Did a dowdy, Cleopatra a gypsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, This be a grey eye or so, but not to the purpose.
~ Act II, Scene IV of Romeo and Juliet

A couple of other allusion examples are as follows:-

1. "Well," said the Lieutenant, who had listened with amused interest to all this, and now waxing merry with his tipple; "Well, blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers!"
~ from Moby Dick by Herman Melville (an allusion to the Biblical Beatitudes)

2. 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;

~ from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Examples of Allusion inspired from the Bible

Following is a list of some of the most popular Biblical allusions that are borrowed from the holy scriptures to convey ideas in popular culture and literature.
  • The serpent - an allusion to the biblical serpent who was responsible for Adam and Eve's fall from paradise, the serpent alludes to a tempter who brings about destruction.
  • Garden of Eden - The paradise that God created for Adam and Eve, a place of bliss and joy that had seen no pain or hardship. This allusion is used to refer to an Elysian utopia.
  • Adam and Eve - allusions like "since Adam and Eve" or "since the time of Adam" are used to refer to a very ancient time as Adam and Eve were the first humans that God created and are, as such, symbolic of antiquity of human civilization.
Instances of Allusion Inspired from Mythology

Following are some of the most popular examples of mythological allusions that are widely used in literature as well as in popular culture.
  • Achilles' heel - a weakness, referring to the only vulnerable part of Achilles' (Greek hero) body which Paris wounded by shooting an arrow and killed him.
  • Cassandra - a dire prophet, alluding to the Trojan princess who was given the gift of prophesy by Apollo in return for her affections. However, after receiving the gift, she spurned his advances, causing him to modify the gift by saying that she would only be able to prophecy death, destruction and doom and that no one would believe her predictions.
  • Herculean labor - a very difficult, laborious task which is almost impossible to undertake and complete; refers to the 12 labors of Hercules.
I'm sure these allusion examples from various sources have cleared your concept regarding this figure of speech. Allusions, along with metaphors (though the two must not be confused as being the same thing), are a good way of getting an idea across by drawing parallels between a historical or mythological event or character and the situation at hand, to emphasize upon the central idea. The allusion examples given here definitely prove this point. Also, allusions add a flavor to any literary work or speech and make things interesting. This may be absent in bland, prosaic expression.