Arts Entertainments

allusion in poetry

reference, according to a handbook to literature by C. Hugh Holman, The Odyssey Press, “is a figure of speech that makes a casual reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event.” According to the definitions in various literature and composition textbooks, an allusion is the casual reference to a figure or event in history or literature that creates a mental image in the mind of the reader.

All right, young man in the back, what’s the problem? I hear you whisper. Maybe I can answer your question better than your neighbor.

“Uh, well, I just think maybe you’ve got something mixed up. Isn’t that an allusion to something you see that isn’t there?”

Thank you. I’m so glad you asked that question. Many people confuse allusion and illusion. An allusion is a reference to someone or something in literature or history. The illusion is something that is not actually seen or does not really exist.

An example of an allusion would be something like “Like a modern-day Daniel, the brave boy walked to the playground to confront the school bully.” The reference to the Bible’s Daniel facing off against hungry lions brings bravery to mind. Another allusion might be “The Paul Bunyon of a man filled the little room.”

An illusion might be ‘Jim Ross told everyone about the flying saucer he saw in the night sky.’ His wife shook her head in disbelief. ‘You also say you saw me striptease on the front porch, illusions the result of over- drinking that concoction you make in the garage.

Writers, especially poets, often allude to biblical characters and events. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare used the line “Daniel come to judgment.” TS Eliot uses a complex literary allusion in his The Waste Land and in his notes on that poem.

I occasionally use allusion, as in the following poems, and many times I allude to something biblical as I do in these. (All poetry is copyrighted by Vivian Gilbert Zabel.)

Lost objects

The screams make the night dark

While chaos reigns in sleeping minds.

Fighting resounding screams to conscience,

Those who once slept are found

Now cowering in fear under the covers.

The fire flickers through the filter of the eyelids,

While the brave than the rest lean out

To glimpse shadows of nightmares

Lingering in the delight of tears

On the cheeks of those too scared to run.

So faith extends its hopeful hand

To touch and tame the ghastly madness

That only Hell can bring those who live.

The hero of an existence filled with demons.

He is the one who loves man the most.

The allusion to Hell recalls the agony found there.

Live for ever

Who wants to live forever?

So heart and limb pain can last forever?

The discomfort will grow every day

Until I don’t want to stay.

talk about immortality,

I was able to greet my grandchildren

progeny for many years.

But when his time disappears,

I would be filled with tears.

I could watch history unfold

With war, disease, desolation.

Leaders would rise and then fall

Bringing hope, sometimes despair,

But never lasting care.

I don’t want to live forever

Not in this world we now know.

I want to know that one day

will i be able to escape

To a place not filled with hate.

Who wants to live forever?

In a place of cloudless skies,

Of love, peace and endless joy,

The sunlight shines without storm,

Glory found in every form.

I will take life forever

In the place where He is alive,

Know that everyone there

No need to part

Nor ever feel imprisoned.

No pain, no sickness, no tears

It will look much less known,

War, a word not even heard.

Yes, I will live forever.

I once crossed the Jordan River.

In the Bible, the Jordan River came to mean the river that one crosses to Heaven, so it represents death.

In the first poem, the allusion is added to the emotion of agony, pain, torture. However, in the second poem, the allusion adds to the imagery but not exactly to the emotion.

So what allusion brings to mind an emotional image? What does Sir Gallahad bring to mind? Courage, love, knight in shining armor, everything comes to mind, emotional reactions.


The young man’s eyes shone.

As I spied the golden curls

Peeking out from under her winter hat.

As an eight year old child is not poetic,

He packed snow into a ball

And he pulled with all his might,

Knocking the hat off his head.

Imagine his surprise as he turned

And returned fire, beating his chest,

Where love for her flourished.

Over the years fast friends

They turned as they jumped

Hand in hand through school.

His prom, she was his date,

As he was to her the next.

After he went to college,

Letters, like winged flames,

He flew from him to her every week.

Summer became a time of joy.

As they rebuilt their love again.

In the fall, they had to part once more,

He went back to the next level;

She, to the university of the city.

Once full of love and laughter,

Messages from your camera

Slower and shorter.

Soon, for Christmas, they stopped.

At the end of the semester, he heard

She gave her love to another.

His heart turned to stone.

Years passed, he made a fortune,

But he never had a family.

At last the lonely came home

To find his lost love not only

Wife of another, but mother.

He stayed in the background

Knowing that her husband might be broke.

He had the means; she had the hate.

Then he saw her face in his mind.

And he kept the hate.

He died the other day

A driver did not pull over or stop.

Many attended the funeral.

With a woman in the back.

Tears accumulated and spilled

Before he wiped his face,

He turned around and ran away.

Only later did she know

He left her not only his heart

But all he had.

Unknown to her, he had been more,

Her Sir Galahad: Though he wore

A rusty and tarnished armor.

I hope you will try to use allusion in your poetry, for a touch of imagery if nothing else, but also try to see if the device can add a dose of emotion.

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