Literary Techniques: Allusion

Posted on October 12, 2017 by Patrick Condliffe

Welcome to our glossary of Literary Techniques ALLUSION post. In this post, we expand on allusion, which is one of the techniques from our Literary Techniques Part 1: Techniques for Analysing a Written Text guide.

Some common student questions about allusion are:

  • What is allusion?
  • Are there different types of allusion?
  • How should I talk about allusion in my essay?

In this post we will discuss allusion, consider the different types of allusion that are used commonly, and provide a step-by-step guide to analysing allusion. We will also give you a couple of examples of allusions in texts, to help you get a deeper understanding of the technique.


Table of Contents

1. What is allusion?
2. Types of allusion
3. How to analyse allusion: a step-by-step guide
4. Allusion examples

Read on to learn how allusion works, what its effect is, and how you should discuss it in an essay.


Allusion is a very common and effective technique. The meaning of allusion varies, but you should treat it as a relatively indirect reference in one text to another text, place, historical period, or author. Allusions rely on the audiences knowledge of other texts, places, or times to develop meaning.

This is very similar to an intertextual reference or a parody. But whereas intertextual reference cites another texts directly and parody is a clear appropriation and comment of another text, allusion only signals to another text.


Types of Allusion

Allusion is one of those techniques where there are a variety of different forms of allusion. These differ depending on the type of thing the allusion is referring to.

The most common form of allusion is a religious allusion, but there are also historical, mythological, and literary allusions.

  • Historical – An allusion to a historical event or period. For example, “He was a Nero.” Suggesting disturbing behaviour like that from the infamous Roman emperor.
  • Mythological – An allusion to a mythological figure or story. For example, “She ran faster than Hermes.” – the messenger of the Greek gods.
  • Literary – An allusion to a literary text or figure. For example, “No matter how Dorian adjusted the electric blanket it was either too hot or too cold, never just right.” – Goldilocks
  • Religious – An allusion to a religious text, story, or figure. For example, “reflecting on her cruel behaviour, Cinderella’s stepmother stood still like a pillar of salt.” – Lot’s wife

For example, in the Western canon of literature, many religious allusions relate to the bible and ideas such as the Garden of Eden or classical myths, and also the Grecian gods.

Now we know what allusion is, what the different types are, and how it works, let’s look at how to analyse it.

How to Analyse Allusion: A Step-by-Step Guide

Analysing techniques is daunting. But it shouldn’t be. There is no mystery to literary analysis. As Matrix students learn, it is a systematic process. Let’s have a look at the overview of how to analyse and allusion:

  1. Read the passage to see if there is some clear allusion to a place, time, religion, myth, or text;
  2. Identify the examples that allude to something else; and then
    1. Figure out what type of allusion it is;
    2. Ask yourself, “what does this allusion refer to?”;
  3. Ask yourself what this allusion conveys in the text?
  4. Write about what this allusion does, and how it supports your argument using a T.E.E.L structure.

Now we have an idea of what this procedure is, let’s go through it in detail. To do this, let’s consider an extract from the second stanza of  John Donne’s The Sunne Rising.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

In this poem, the persona is using the conceit of chiding the sun for waking himself and his lover by rising. The poem is full of contextual references that are historical allusions to our 21st century context.

Step 1: Read the passage and look for a reference to a period, religion, myth, or text

If we read this stanze we find the following three lines that are referencing something:

Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Of particular interest is the phrase “th’Indias of spice and mine.” This is referring to a place, and clearly is intended to convey something, but is it?
Let’s have a look.

Step 2: Identify what the allusion is alluding to

Often to unpack an alllusion we have to think about our knowledge of myth, religion, place, or history. This allusion is referring to a place, the “Indies of spice and mine.” But it is the place of a specific historical time – the rule of James I.

At this time the Caribbean, known then as the Indies, was a desired trading partner and a place considered ripe for plundering. The general public perceived the Indies as places replete with wealth that were making nations like Spain and Holland very wealthy through spice imports and what they had extracted through the mines.

Donne is referring to this vast wealth, and its political importance, in this reference.

Let’s figure out what this means.


Step 3: Unpack what is is representing in the text

The Sunne Rising  is a love poem. The persona, the male lover, is chiding the sun in front of his female lover for waking them up and interrupting their activities. This is a witty conceit, because the sun obviously wouldn’t listen to a simple man on earth when it does the same thing day-in-and-day-out. In the extract,

Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

The persona is personifying the Sun and telling it to go and leave the lovers alone and go visit the Indies, and to not return until the following day.
Why is this a strong allusion? Well, the Indies was a valuable location and site of plunder for Europe during the 1600s. Many perceived it to be a far-off and fantastic place dripping with wealth.

In this reference, the persona is implying that the sun should go look at the wealth and exotic splendour in the Indies and compare it to the person the persona was sharing his bed with. The implication is that the person sharing the persona’s bed is more pleasantly fragrant or valuable than any spice or gold to be exported from the Indies.

Now we know what is being alluded to, we need to explain how it creates meaning for the reader.


Step 4: Write about it in a T.E.E.L structure

We now need to present this example and discuss its technique. But we also need to explain how it represents meaning and connects to an argument.

To do this, Matrix Students would use a T.E.E.L structure to explain what they perceive the allusion to be conveying.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example;
  • Example: The example;
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning;
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses). Let’s use this T.E.E.L structure to write about this example of an allusion.

  • The technique being used is historical allusion.
  • The example of the historical allusion is “Look, and tomorrow late, tell me, / Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine / Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.”
  • The effect of this historical allusion is that the persona is praising his lover and comparing them to the wealth of the colonised Americas.
  • The link to our argument is that Donne’s use of wit, in this allusion, epitomises his ability to make the everyday a thing of metaphysical beauty.

Now we need to discuss this. Matrix students would learn to use the following structure for writing their responses:

Donne’s persona in The Sunne Rising is not satisfied by showing off to his lover by ordering around a personified sun, he also commands the sun to compare her to the wealth of the indies. The persona makes a historical allusion in his imperative command to the the sun to “tomorrow late, tell me, /  Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine / Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.” During Donne’s context, the Indies – the Spanish and Dutch held Americas – were a lucrative source of wealth because of the plundered spices and extracted gold that was being exported from there. In this historical allusion, the persona is challenging the sun to compare the wealth of the Indies with the beauty of the lover who shares his bead. The implication is that the Sun will judge the Indies poorer. This is an example of Donne’s ability, as a metaphysical poet, to make event the mundane or everyday a thing of transcendental beauty.


Now that we’ve gone through this process of analysis in a systematic manner. Let’s take a look at some other examples of allusion.


Allusion Examples

Allusion Example 1:

There are many religious allusions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Let’s look at one. Consider the extract below from Act 1, Scene 2 of the play, where Claudius criticises Hamlet’s protracted mourning of his father’s death:

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow…
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corpse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

WIlliam Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1601. Act 1, Scene 2.

The bolded line is a religious allusion to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.

Effect of Allusion:

Claudius is trying to make the point that death is a common part of human life. He uses the religious allusion to Cain and AbeI to signify this point. However, this religious allusion is ironic, as, like Cain, we find out that Claudius has murdered his brother (and Hamlet’s father), King Hamlet, out of jealousy.


Allusion Example 2:

Allusions don’t have to be religious or mythical, they can be literary. In T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men,’ there is an allusion to a celestial rose described by Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso. Consider the following extract from stanza 4:

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

TS Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925. Stanza IV.


Effect of Allusion:

At one point in Eliot’s poem the reader encounters the phrase ‘multifoliate rose,’ but Eliot does not mention Dante or the Paradiso by name. He is alluding to these lines from the Paradiso where Dante’s pilgrim sees the celestial city of Heaven:

“And as a hill is mirrored
in waters at its base, as if to see
itself—when rich with grass and flowers—graced,

so, in a thousand tiers that towered above
the light, encircling it, I saw, mirrored,
all of us who have won return above.

And if the lowest rank ingathers such
vast light, then what must be the measure of
this Rose where it has reached its highest leaves!”

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 1472. Canto XXX, lines 109-117

This is an allusion, because Eliot doesn’t quote Dante’s Paradiso, but instead alludes to it so that we may make the connection between the texts ourselves.


How to discuss allusion in an essay:

Eliot uses allusion to compare the earthly modern world with heaven. In stanza four of The Hollow Men, the persona alludes to the “multifoliate rose / of death’s twilight kingdom.” This is a literary allusion to Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso. In Canto 30 of the Paradiso, the narrator describes the city of heaven as a bright celestial city full of mirrors and reflected light. This description contrasts starkly with Eliot’s poem which is full of dark and bleak imagery. Eliot alludes to the Paradiso to emphasise the darkness and corruption he perceived in the modern world.


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