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Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of Allusion

In writing on assonance last month, I found that the more I studied the subject, the more assonance grew from dictionary definitions to ear-opening experiences of word music. The same thing has just happened to me in writing about allusion. I began by laughing at P. G. Wodehouse's addled literary quotations, and then I discovered how powerful and surprisingly subtle a writing resource allusion can be. Though often overlooked, allusion lives omnipresent in the writing that surrounds us.

To allude to something means to refer to that something briefly and informally — current usage keeps the light connotations of the word's Latin root: alludere: ad- "toward' andludere " to play."  For example:

...giving me the sort of weak smile Roman gladiators used to give the Emperor before entering the arena, Gussie trickled off.
(Right Ho, Jeeves
)

Before and after this allusion to ancient Rome, Wodehouse sticks to the main track of his narrative, Bertie Wooster trying to help his pal Gussie Fink-Nottle win the heart of Madeline Bassett. The few words of the allusion dab bloody images that, though they take us far from Bertie's modern London, give us a quick taste of Gussie's queasy terror.

Brevity is the soul of allusion; when allusions grow overlong, we call them digressions. The goal of allusion, as one online grammarian put it, to is to "stimulate ideas, associations, and information in the reader's mind with a word or two." It works: describe a character as "quixotic" or call a house "Dickensian," and these one word allusions will open whole worlds for your readers. Phrases often alluded to, all's well that ends well, for instance, tend to be pithy and short.

Allusion's strength comes from its authority. When we allude to other writing in our own, we are saying implicitly, "What I'm saying here has been written before, and not by an unknown scribbler like me, but by one of our art's great geniuses. You believe Homer, Cervantes, and George Eliot tell the truth; I believe they do too; so, you can believe me as you believe them."

Allusion's weakness is that readers need to get the allusion, to know what the writer is alluding to. If you know no Dickens, "Dickensian" tells you nothing. I enjoy getting allusions and happily think, "Shakespeare!" when I read, "My kingdom for a horse," "Et tu, Brute?" or "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Many literary allusions, on the other hand, go right over my head. When Gussie asks Bertie what to say to Madeline about the sunset, Bertie replies:

"Well, Jeeves got off a good one the other day...he said, ‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, sir, and all the air a solemn stillness holds.' You might use that."
(
Much Obliged, Jeeves)

— I didn't know on first reading that he was alluding to Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"; learning the allusion later added to my pleasure in the passage.

Yet over eons, many allusions have woven themselves anonymously into the fabric of our beautiful English language. "A fool's paradise," "a dish fit for the gods," "a foregone conclusion" — we use such expressions daily without knowing or much caring that their life began in the Bard of Avon's teeming brain. Quick, where does "the milk of human kindness" come from, Shakespeare or the King James Bible? Shakespeare, in Macbeth. What about "These are the times that try men's souls"? Julius Caesar or A Tale of Two Cities? Nope, Tom Paine, The American Crisis. Many allusions have only "Anon" or "folk saying" as their author; we'll never know who first coined, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

This vast storehouse of expressions is the source of allusion's invisible power. We all use many, many phrases every day, "nick of time," for instance, "tried and true," or "dead as a doornail," which we know we didn't invent, but which we're sure our readers/auditors know as well as we do. If I tell you, "Joe's dead as a doornail," you and I may not know that the phrase first appeared in print in 1350, but we do know it's a common way to describe someone who has shuffled off this mortal coil. In using the phrase, I'm saying more than that Joe is dead; I'm supporting my statement with the authority, not of one writer, but of our common human wisdom. Trying saying "He's dead as a door screw," and you'll sense the new phrase's lack of allusive energy.

Any phrase, however, can become an allusive phrase. In fiction or real life Bob might joke one day to Betty, "I'm dead as a door screw," Betty might reply with sarcastic quotation marks in her tone, "Oh, ‘I'm dead as a door screw!'" That could start them laughing or fighting, but either way, "I'm as dead as a door screw" might become a phrase that the couple will allude to for years: "Remember the silly day you said ‘"I'm dead as a door screw'?" "Sure I do, why'd you get so mad at me?" "It was the goofy way you said it!" Ah, the course of true love never did run smooth!

If we accept this broad sense of allusion's meaning, we starting seeing allusions everywhere in writing — nowhere more so than in the comic novels of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse's light-hearted prose links long chains of allusions that run as a counter melody to his central story, much like a country road meandering alongside a major highway.

A few favorite allusions appear in novel after novel. Whenever the feather-brained Bertie is frightened, he makes some garbled allusion to the Ghost's dire warning that he'll cause Hamlet's "knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine." Whenever he feels a pal is too timid with a woman, he asks Jeeves to remind him of Lady Macbeth's "Letting ‘I dare not' wait upon ‘I would'":

"'You remember the fellow you've mentioned to me once or twice, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean — the cat chap."
"Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as letting ‘I dare not' wait upon ‘I would,' like the poor cat i' th' adage."
(
Code of the Woosters)

One scholarly Wodehousian found a dozen allusions to the Bible in one chapter of Very Good, Jeeves, including "bit like an adder" (Proverbs), "the lion lying down with the lamb" (Isaiah), and "bring down my gray hair with sorrows to the grave (Genesis). In Code of the Woosters I found allusions to Tennyson — "a man rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things" — and Shelley — "a sensitive plant." On one page Wodehouse alludes to Arthur Conan Doyle — "Sherlock Holmes didn't refuse to see clients because he had been out late the night before at Dr. Watson's birthday party" — and a few lines later refers to a pal as "a human lark, leaving his watery nest at daybreak." For that phrase Wodehouse gives no credit, but since it sounded poetic, I looked online and discovered he was alluding to a 17th century poet, Sir William D'Avenant:

The lark now leaves his watery nest,
And climbing, shakes his dewy wings...

Some of Wodehouse's long allusions:

"Jeeves...who was the fellow who on looking at something felt like somebody looking at something? I learned the passage at school, but it has escaped me."
"I fancy the individual you have in mind, sir, is the poet Keats, who compared his emotions on first reading Chapman's Homer to those of stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific."
"The Pacific, eh?"
"Yes, sir. And all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent on a peak in Darien."
"Of course, it comes back to me..."
(Thank You, Jeeves)

— come back short in a later works:

And while I looked at him with a wild surmise, silent upon a sitting-room carpet in Maiden Eggesford...
(
Joy in the Morning)

At his best Wodehouse can spin his allusions into a sublime, "Who's on first?" nuttiness that make me and millions laugh aloud. Here Bertie attempts alluding to Wordsworth:

"The boy," I repeated..."is the father to the man."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about this Glossop."
"I thought you said something about somebody's father."
"I said the boy was the father of the man."
"What boy?"
"The boy Glossop."
"He hasn't got a father."
"I never said he had..."
(Right Ho, Jeeves)

My word count makes me fear I've overstayed my welcome, so I will not stand on the order of my going, but go at once. Or almost at once, for I cannot forbear recommending allusions to all writers. Friends, Romans, countrymen, faint heart ne'er won fair allusion. If allusions be the food of writing, allude on! This is glorious summer, not your winter of discontent, so gather your allusive rosebuds while you may! Maybe Gussie Fink-Nottle lets "I dare not" wait upon "I would," but you can take arms against a sea of troubles and leap once more into the breech! Remember, it aint over 'til it's over. So lay on, Macduff, and damned be he or she who tells you, "Hold, enough!"


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 10th 2012, 5:11 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
Way to go, Michael, you let shy knowledge grow to bold attempt!
Tuesday July 10th 2012, 9:29 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Lots of funny stories. I enjoyed the analogies very much.
Liked most the invitation for to find alluding phrases. Of course will try to find several and hoped to send a response to you in my life time.
To me the foremost agreeable sentence is :"If you know no Dickens, "Dickensian" tells you nothing".
This is true for every topics.
Tuesday July 10th 2012, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
The most delightful gem in this small, overflowing treasure chest is in the second line; from now on I plan to use the term "word music" sparingly but enthusiastically! I'll also be using more allusions in my writing - and speech, if I can think of them fast enough. I especially appreciate your caution in the third paragraph to not turn them into digressions by weighing them down with too much elaboration. Note to self: gravity is not the soul of wit!

The Happy Quibbler

PS - Suggestion: drop the "ing" in "... we starting seeing allusions everywhere." (par. 9).
Tuesday July 10th 2012, 11:57 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Fantabulous to the 23rd power!

My father constantly alluded, in conversation, to Shakespeare, the King James version and a few English and Scots poets, as his mother did before. Apart from his love, it was his greatest gift. What a great feeling it is to read Macbeth, for example, and find out where a familiar allusion came from.

Wodehouse is so brilliant in using Jeeves, whom you would expect to be less educated, as the source of literary knowledge in explaining an allusion. Wooster would have seemed like a pretentious prig in the same role.

Thank you, Michael.

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