What is Allusion?

An allusion is an indirect reference to something.

Easy A-llusion (a.k.a.The Scarlet Letter).

Not to be confused with “illusion,” this word comes from “allude” which means to reference something indirectly. Since allusions are implied instead of clearly written out, the words in the poem have to coax the reader into finding out the reference (kinda like a scavenger hunt!). When writing, the author believes that the reference they make in their allusion is something most people know about and can recognize quickly, like a historical figure or event, religious text, famous quote, classic story, or even a piece of art. Depending on the poet’s age and experiences and the poem’s audience, the allusion might be targeted to a specific group of people. When writing your own poems, keep in mind who you expect to be reading your work. Most of your peers will get what you mean if you write about feeling helpless like Katniss without a bow and arrow, but a person from another age group might not. Use allusions to your advantage by bringing in the emotions and ideas that come up when people think about the person, place, story, or event you reference. This can help give your poem that extra oompf and really speak to the reader.

Try to track down the allusions in these examples. Hint: In the video, it's another song. In the poems, they're both stories.

Dante's Inferno (Excerpt)


Even as the little vessel shoves from shore,

Backward, still backward, so he thence withdrew;

And when he wholly felt himself afloat,

There where his breast had been he turned his tail,

And that extended like an eel he moved,

And with his paws drew to himself the air.

A greater fear I do not think there was

What time abandoned Phaeton the reins,

Whereby the heavens, as still appears, were scorched;

Nor when the wretched Icarus his flanks

Felt stripped of feathers by the melting wax,

His father crying, "An ill way thou takest!"

Than was my own, when I perceived myself

On all sides in the air, and saw extinguished

The sight of everything but of the monster.



Mother, I am bare in a mist-mad forest.

Only the moon shows me love.

Winter will crush me: tiny arms, pale feet,

tongue of rust. I have a thousand visions:

you ironing an enormous dress; eating

chocolate and honey, sausage

and a luscious peach; the sun drunk

and easy; spring blowing raw sky

and storm scream; someone running.

You cry, Go, go. Take them, will you?

He does, along the sea road with its

stopped ship fast asleep. In this place

of elaborate beauty, it is late autumn

and mostly quiet, except when

the heaven-born wind wags and flaps

the branch he left tied

to a sere white ash. Silence itself is strategy,

a signed language,

gorgeous, fluid in the hands

of those who learned it in childhood.

You know we were never meant

to live here, only to learn relinquished,

forsworn, to grasp with wet hands the cold

metal of life, then find a way to let go.

Poetry Term: 

Tom Tedford

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