In this section of the project, I wish to explain what I mean by the term 'allusion', as well as exploring its implications.  When I say allusion (for which I often use 'reference' synonymously) I am referring to a word, phrase, or section in one author's work that is derived from the words of another author, whether directly, or more subtlety. They can range from a single word specifically chosen in context to bring to mind another work, to entire paragraphs or stanzas quoted verbatim from that other work.  They can be direct quotations, thematic references, or stylistic imitations.  When in the form of a quotation, there is a direct correspondence between the words one author uses to those of another.  A thematic reference can be significantly more vague - here an author seeks to replicate a some sort of theme, possibly scenic, narrative, or mythical - and does not necessarily include words or portions identical to the original document.   More stylist allusions regard phrasing and word choice rather than specific meanings.  While these lines may convey a drier, more technical definition, what I really wish to explore is significantly less cut and dried, the meanings and effects authors employing allusions can achieve.  This in turn leads to an examination of why authors use allusions.  In the following paragraphs, when I refer to the 'work alluded to', 'the original work', the 'old(er) work', or the 'source' I am speaking of the older source material which the more recent author is including in some form in his or her own creation.  The 'allusive work' or the 'new(er) work' is the more recent author's publication.  I am generally assuming that allusions intentionally placed by the author are there to be located by a knowledgeable reader, though in cases of vaguer or more controversial allusions that may not always be the case.

How does an author's use of allusions affect his or her work? What benefits does s/he gain by doing so? How do they change and enhance the reader's experience? Allusions leave much to the reader as far as interpretation, but also allow the author great power and flexibility.  A poet can add new realms of imagery, meaning, or theme with relatively few words.  I.A. Richards once described The Waste Land as "equivalent in content to an epic. Without [the use of allusions] twelve books would have been needed."1 By the use of allusion a poet can say much more than is expressed in the allusive words themselves, s/he can bring to mind other works in part or entirety. This often enables him or her to tell an epic or continue an archetypal image or metaphor, while adding his or her own interpretation and contribution to an already powerful literary tradition.  Within this tradition, the long standing tradition of Western Literature, most of the themes that have long puzzled mankind have already been explored extensively.  In some cases it may be entirely possible that nothing new can be said on the subject, unless an author is relating that subject to the modern condition, the author's own era.  S/he can use allusion to add a new meaning.

The meaning the author adds is implicit, but not explicit; the meaning is suggested, but not demanded.  In this situation much is left to the reader.  Not only must s/he find the allusion, but s/he must also find a way to give it meaning.  A knowing reader, who is already aware of the allusion and familiar with the work being alluded to, can apply that knowledge to  instantly discover additional meanings and facets embedded in the newer work.  In the hands of a reader unfamiliar with the work being alluded to, the allusion becomes a puzzle.  Once the pieces are assembled it enhances the reader's ability to understand and enjoy the work.

The use of allusions by an author places a large degree of power in the hands of the reader.  When interpreting the allusion, the reader is not presented with a certain meaning, because the of very nature of allusions, but instead must choose one either consciously or intuitively.  What do I mean by the 'nature of allusions'? I posit that while most allusions are consciously chosen by the author (though they sometimes appear unconsciously, reflecting the author's knowledge and memory, or something as simple as the article or book he or she just finished reading), they can not be assumed to have only one meaning.  To begin with, only very rarely can an author's words be interpreted definitively, even when there is no allusion involved.  So, first the words have their own meanings within the context of the poem.  Next, they may have direct meaning(s) in the work(s) they are taken from, and finally, they can be taken in new ways arising from their placement in the new work while maintaining the context of the old.  This gives the reader a great number of interpretive possibilities to chose from, a form of literary empowerment.

How does the reader gain the knowledge to use this power and successfully interpret an allusive reference? If the reader finds the allusions and is already familiar with the work being alluded to, the job is considerably easier.  S/he can immediately use that knowledge to interpret or reinterpret the work in question.  If the work alluded to is not known to the reader or if the reader does not immediately recognize the allusion, then it must be stumbled over in another way.  Probably the most common is to have the allusion pointed out by some sort of reference material, whether a guide to the poem (i.e. Southam's A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot), a piece of criticism, or by another scholar in another form.  Once the work alluded to is known, the reader can then track down its original meaning in its original context.  That original meaning can be extrapolated from an extended quote, taken a summary or explanation (from the reference material), or by actually tracking down, reading, and studying the original work in its entirety.  The last of the three is perhaps the most ideal, but the least practical.  Who has the time to track down every last work someone has claimed The Waste Land refers to, read them, and study them in depth? Yet problems can arise by not doing so.  What is the difference between understanding such a connection for yourself and understanding it because someone else provided the explanation? The former allows for a much more personal understanding and interpretation along with a certain element of joy in the 'eureka' moment that occurs when hard work results in a satisfying and clarifying connection to the text.  The latter may provide an interpretation just as valuable, if not more so, in reaching a comprehensive understanding of the work containing the allusion.  However, that value is largely dependent on the quality of the reference, something that can be difficult, if not impossible, for someone who examining a poem or poet for the first time to judge.  I don't claim to know the answer to this question, if there even is one, though I do feel that there is something inherently different about the two approaches.  The simplest distinction is that the first involves a personal involvement in the quest to understand the allusion, while the latter is significantly less personal, but often easier and faster in that the research has already been done, and often done by those who are already experts in the field.

There is a third way to find the source of an allusion, one that perhaps fits best with the puzzle model mentioned previously.  This one does not occur until the second or even forty-second reading of the poem and occurs because of events that have happened in the meantime.  This is when the reader comes across an allusion that s/he had missed before because s/he was not even aware it existed.  But when s/he comes across it during later reading and has become familiar with the work that is alluded to in the meantime, a new idea (or series of ideas) can be incorporated into the reader's previous interpretation of the work.  A similar effect is achieved when a reader initially finds the source of an allusion by way of a reference material, but goes back later having actually studied the source in the meantime.  It's one thing to be told that a particular line is from Hamlet in such and such a particular context, but quite another to be reading Hamlet a year or two later, stumble across that same line, and make one's own connection between the two.  All of these ways of reaching a personal 'eureka!' moment make the reader an active participant in the creative process, at least in so far as creating his or her own personal interpretation and understanding of a poem or other work.

Once an allusion is found and explored, another question arises, who is the author of those words?  The person who first wrote the words, or the one who has since incorporated them into a new work?  Both must be considered as the authors when studying the allusion because each has given relevant meaning(s) to the passage.  The first gave it meaning in his or her original act of literary creation, while the second gives it meaning by taking those words and using them in an original context to give them a second meaning.  By implanting them in his or her own work, the second author not only puts his or her own meaning into the words but also uses a meaning that could not exist with the authorship of the first.  Instead the second author expands on and makes use of the original author's intention, while incorporating that original intention into his or her own context.  The reader is left to see three types of meanings: those originally created by the first author, those of the second author purely in that author's context, and those of the second author when the meanings of the first author are placed within the second author's context.  It is through that third type of meaning that the second author can most effectively utilized those same words, in creating a new meaning which allows him or her to say much more than is possible when limiting him or herself to purely original syllables.

It is clear that Eliot valued literary allusions, as his works are liberally speckled with them.  Eliot himself frequently dealt with the topic in his own criticism, including his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent.  In that essay he meditates on the relationship of the poet to his literary past and his use of that past in his own work, insisting that "the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career." This is what Eliot's allusions accomplish- they tie the past and all of its accomplishments to his modern world, demonstrating what is unchanged in theme and substance and also demonstrating how we can never perceive the same things in quite the same way as previous authors did. Just as our interpretations and understanding is tinged by our history and collective experiences, it is also skewed by our present.

Not only does Eliot accomplish what I've outlined above, using another author's words to create new meanings within his own poetry, far more effectively than he could alone, but he also feels that such a thing is absolutely necessary for any poet.  In his essay, "Philip Massinger", he claims that, "One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows.  Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."2   That "something different" is what Eliot and other poets highly skilled at the use of allusions can inject into a poem.  In turn the knowing reader, or at least the reader who is willing and eager to know, can extract that "something different" and piece together the meaning of a poem that may be far more complex than the words on the page originally appear.  Eliot took the use of allusions to the extreme in The Waste Land, leaving modern scholars still attempting to figure out exactly what he meant.  Probably the best answer to that question is that in no part did he did not mean any specific one thing, but that he created a work that is most powerful not in its interpretation, but in its interpretive possibilities.  He uses many of the same concepts on a smaller scale in "The Hollow Men" which I have turned into a hypertext document in order to demonstrate some of the interpretive possibilities that arise when studying its allusions.

Return to outline.