15 Examples of Allusion in Literature & Poetry

March 8, 2024

examples of allusion in literature and poetry

Whether you are an aspiring novelist or just trying to spice up your personal statement, utilizing literary devices is a great way to make your writing more colorful and engaging. Although there are many literary devices to choose from, one of the most popular is allusion. You might not realize it, but you probably consume literature, film, and music that is chock-full of allusion examples. For example, Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” contains allusions to Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Similarly, the movie Shrek alludes to many movies, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As these examples indicate, allusion is a versatile literary device that can enhance your enjoyment and comprehension of media, as well as your own writing. In this post, we’ll explore the concept of allusion by discussing allusion examples, including examples of allusion in poetry and examples of allusion in literature.

What is allusion?

In your everyday conversations, you have probably heard someone use the verb allude. We often say that people are alluding to an idea when we suspect they are making an indirect reference to a concept or topic without acknowledging it directly. Allusion, as a literary device, means something similar. According to the Poetry Foundation, an allusion is a “brief, intentional reference to a historical, mythic, or literary person, place, event, or movement.”

For example, you might hear someone say they went “down a rabbit hole” when researching a topic. This doesn’t mean they literally found a burrow. Instead, this phrase is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that communicates the speaker spent more time than they planned reading about an interesting or unusual idea. Similarly, you may have called someone a “Scrooge” when they were being greedy, alluding to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Most allusions, including these examples, refer to people, concepts, or events, often coming from an external piece of media like a book, movie, or artwork. However, internal allusions in a piece of writing can also make reference to something that occurred earlier within a text.

Allusion Examples (Continued)

What distinguishes allusion from your run-of-the-mill reference is how indirect and, usually, brief this device is. When writers use allusion, they do not typically call overt attention to it or explain the reference. As a result, readers may or may not pick up on all examples of allusion.

Since allusions are indirect, you might be wondering, why use this technique at all? Like other literary devices, allusion can add depth and dimension to writing, providing writers with an efficient tool that can help them enrich a text by connecting it to a broader cultural, literary, or historical context. Moreover, allusion can help a writer construct meaning or establish tone in cases where allusions are used metaphorically or ironically. Essentially, allusion can act as a type of shorthand that helps writers convey meaning. With this foundation in mind, let’s look at some allusion examples to see how they work in practice.

Allusion Examples in Poetry

Regardless of whether they reference internal or external ideas, allusions are virtually always brief. For this reason, readers will commonly encounter allusion examples in poetry. Let’s examine some examples.

1) “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

In the “The Raven,” American poet Edgar Allan Poe crafts a narrative poem in which the narrator laments their heartbreak over the death of their lover, Lenore, to the eponymous raven, who frustrates the narrator with their repeated response of “Nevermore.” There are several allusion examples in “The Raven” including the reference made in line 41:

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—

In Greek mythology, Pallas is the goddess of wisdom and useful arts. With this knowledge, readers’ may interpret Poe’s choice to have the raven perch on this bust as an indicator of the raven’s intelligence, which is left ambiguous in the poem. This allusion may also reflect the narrator’s desire for answers to his questions about death and memory.

2) “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

Also referred to as “Prufrock,” this poem was T.S. Eliot’s first professionally published poem. Inspired by his Modernist peers, Eliot wrote “Prufrock” using a stream of consciousness technique to explore the narrator’s thoughts. In “Prufrock,” Eliot utilizes multiple examples of allusion, including the reference made in line 94:

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

Here, Lazarus is a Biblical allusion, likely referring to the Lazarus in John 11, who Jesus raised from the dead. However, this allusion could also be in reference to another Biblical Lazarus in Luke 16. This figure returns from the dead at the behest of a rich man who has been sent to Hell to warn the man’s family so they can avoid the same fate. In either case, this allusion, in the poem’s context, seems to reflect the narrator’s feelings of frustration and disillusionment.

Allusion Examples in Poetry (Continued)

3) “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost

As a seminal American poet, Robert Frost often utilized naturalistic imagery to explore his reflections on the human experience. In “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Frost pairs this imagery with Biblical allusion:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

In this passage, Frost alludes to the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man as explored in the Bible. Through this example of allusion, Frost explores the impermanence of paradise by referencing Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. In doing so, he communicates his point that nothing lasts forever.

4) “A Name” by Ada Limón

In her poetry collection, The Carrying, Ada Limón frequently reflects on the power of names. Readers can see this theme reflected in the collection’s opening poem:

When Eve walked among

the animals and named them—

nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,

fiddler crab, fallow deer—

I wonder if she ever wanted

them to speak back, looked into

their wide wonderful eyes and

whispered, Name me, name me.

Here, we see another Biblical example of allusion to the story of Adam and Eve. Knowledgeable readers will notice how this allusion modifies the Creation story. In the Bible, Adam is the person who names the animals in Eden rather than Eve. By changing this part of the narrative, Limón emphasizes the power of names and those who choose them.

Allusion Examples in Poetry (Continued)

5) “The Disquieting Muses” by Sylvia Plath

Known for her confessional poetry, Sylvia Plath has many allusion examples in her work to myths and fairy tales. We can see one such example of allusion in her ekphrastic poem, “The Disquieting Muses”:

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt

Or what disfigured and unsightly

Cousin did you so unwisely keep

Unasked to my christening

This allusion to an unwelcome guest at a christening calls back the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. You may remember that, in Sleeping Beauty, an evil fairy curses the princess at her christening, setting the story in motion. In Plath’s poem, this example of allusion helps communicate the speaker’s feelings of resentment and blame toward their mother.

6) “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

An ode is a type of lyrical poetry that celebrates a person, event, or object. This style  was popular among many Romantic poets, including John Keats. The first stanza of his poem, “Ode to a Nightingale,” is also a great example of allusion in poetry:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

This stanza actually has several allusion examples, many of which prominently reference Greek mythology. Lethe is a river in the Underworld that is commonly associated with forgetfulness. Similarly, the Dryad is a tree nymph, an allusion Keats uses to characterize the nightingale as mythical and ethereal. Through these examples of allusion, Keats expresses his emotions about the contrast between the joyous, natural world of the nightingale and the more structured nature of human society.

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7) “Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood

Many examples of allusion are isolated to a particular line or phrase in a poem. However, some allusions play out over the course of entire works, as is the case with Atwood’s “Siren Song.” In this poem, Atwood alludes to The Odyssey, specifically its myth of the Sirens. Readers of The Odyssey will remember that Sirens are mythical creatures who lure sailors to their deaths through their song. Through the entirety of “Siren Song,” Atwood uses allusion to subvert our perspective on the figure of the Siren by making one of them the speaker, who reflects on her own power and isolation.

Allusion Examples in Literature

While poets frequently utilize allusion examples, they are also a fixture in many literary works. Below, we’ve broken down some prominent allusion examples in literature:

8) Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“Call me Ishmael” is arguably one of the most well-known lines from literature. It is also one of the many allusion examples in Melville’s Moby Dick. Here, the name Ishmael is an allusion to a biblical figure. In Genesis, Ishmael is the oldest son of Abraham who is known as a wandering outcast within his family. This allusion may serve to emphasize the novel’s themes of alienation and humans’ search for meaning.

9) Moby Dick by Herman Melville (again!)

Melville’s novel is one of the most essential works in American literature for a reason. Part of its legacy stems from its complex, layered, and much-debated meaning, including its many allusions. Another example of allusion in the text is the name of the ship the novel takes place on: the Pequod. Contemporary readers of Moby Dick might have drawn connections between this name and the Pequot tribe, who are indigenous to modern-day Connecticut. From 1636 to 1638, members of this tribe engaged in the Pequot War with English settlers. This conflict ultimately had disastrous and long-lasting effects on the tribe. Melville’s allusion to this tribe and English colonization evokes a sense of conflict, echoing the novel’s broader themes about human nature and the effects of unchecked ambition.

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10) Jaws by Peter Benchley

Although many are now more familiar with Steven Spielberg’s film, Jaws originated as a novel, which was published in 1974. In his novel, Benchley tells the story of Martin Brody, a police chief who must contend with a killer shark. Throughout the novel, Benchley alludes to the character of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick through his characterization of Quint. Quint is a fisherman and shark hunter, whose pursuit of the shark mirrors Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. The fate of Quint’s character is one of the most prominent allusion examples in Jaws (spoiler ahead!). Like Ahab, Quint becomes entangled in harpoon ropes attached to the shark, which pulls him underwater to his death.

11) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Although many allusion examples reference literary works, they can also be historical in nature. This section of dialogue from To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example:

“Are we poor, Atticus?”

Atticus nodded. “We are indeed.”

Jem’s nose wrinkled. “Are we as poor as the Cunninghams”?

“Not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest.”

In this passage, Lee uses “the crash” to allude to the 1929 stock market crash that caused the Great Depression. Recognizing this example of allusion would help the reader understand To Kill a Mockingbird’s social and historical context.

12) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Arguably Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet is also frequently alluded to in other works. How many times have you heard a couple in literature or film described as a pair of star-crossed lovers? However, like the majority of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, Romeo and Juliet also contains many allusion examples. One such example occurs in Act 1, Scene 1:

Well in that hit you miss. She’ll not be hit

With Cupid’s arrow. She hath Dian’s wit,

And, in strong proof of chastity well armed,

From love’s weak childish bow she lives uncharmed.

In this passage, Shakespeare alludes to two mythological figures. They include Cupid, the Roman god of love, and Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, women, and childbirth. Romeo says the above lines in reference to his feelings for Rosaline and her lack of reciprocity. His allusion to Cupid speaks to this conflict, suggesting that even Cupid’s arrow can’t make Rosaline share Romeo’s feelings. Strengthening this allusion, Romeo also references Diana, a figure who vowed lifelong celibacy. By alluding to Diana, Romeo suggests that Rosaline is resolute in her decision not to pursue a relationship with him.

Allusion Examples in Literature (Continued)

13) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A classic dystopian novel, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 offers both timely and timeless critiques of state-sponsored censorship. Bradbury’s text utilizes many allusion examples including the following historical allusion:

He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlor like a native feeling an eruption of Vesuvius.

Here, Bradbury references Mount Vesuvius, a volcano that famously buried the city of Pompeii in 79 A.D. Through this allusion, Bradbury suggested that Mildred felt panicked when she left the parlor.

14) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A classic of Gothic literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has become a fixture in many high school and college curricula. However, what many readers may not realize is that Frankenstein is not the full title of Shelley’s novel. When it was originally published, Shelley included a subtitle: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. That subtitle is, itself, an allusion that can help the reader understand the meaning of Shelley’s novel. Prometheus is a figure in Greek mythology, who created humans and gave them fire. This latter action angers Zeus, who dooms Prometheus to eternal punishment and torment. Recognizing this allusion can help readers see the parallels between Prometheus and Frankenstein, who also plays God by creating new life and, ultimately, suffers for it.

Allusion Examples in Literature (Continued)

15) Firestarter by Stephen King

Let’s conclude with a slightly more modern example. Stephen King is one of our most prolific contemporary writers, having published 65 novels and novellas. These include his 1980 novel, Firestarter, which tells the story of a young girl with pyrokinetic abilities. Included below is one allusion example from King’s novel:

Rainbird was a troll, an orc, a balrog of a man.

Fantasy genre enthusiasts will immediately recognize this allusion to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Orcs and the balrog are monstrous creatures that exist in Tolkien’s mythology. In describing Rainbird, a central antagonist in Firestarter, this way, King paints a portrait of a brutish and malevolent figure.

Final Thoughts: 15 Examples of Allusion

As these examples show, allusion is an extremely versatile device that appears in all writing genres. From a reader’s standpoint, allusion can also make a work more engaging, allowing you to draw connections between the media you have consumed. If you struggle to identify or understand allusion examples, that’s okay! It takes time and practice to learn how to identify and analyze allusions. Plus, as many of the aforementioned examples indicate, allusions frequently reference classic works, like the Bible, Shakespeare, and Greek myths. Refamiliarizing yourself with these works can make it significantly easier to notice allusions and incorporate them into your own writing. So, maybe it’s time to update your reading list?

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