Thursday, 11 January 1996


"The test for allusion is that it is a phenomenum that some reader or readers may fail to observe" [12, p.39]

Allusions are far from being the sole preserve of literature. Cinema, painting and music frequently contain quotations from other works. Early still-lifes in particular depended on a rich vocabulary of symbols which many admirers are unaware of today. But how important for the contemporary reader is the awareness of a poem's allusions? And how has this importance changed?

The Mechanics of Allusion

According to Ben-Porot [5, p.109] the process of a reader's actualisation of an allusion involves

  • recognition of marker
  • identification of evoked text
  • modification of the initial local interpretation of passage
  • activation of evoked text

Full actualisation may be frustrated at each stage -

recognition of marker

If an allusion is disguised or unobtrusive (it doesn't appear in quotes, it has a tempting non-allusive interpretation, etc) the reader may not realise that it exists. Some poets may use this ploy to satisfy certain readers for whom "the pleasure of recognition [is] proportional ... to the difficulty or unobtrusiveness of the allusion". I.A. Richards said that these ploys are "not to be confused with literary or poetic values" [13, p. 170] but it's at least "tactful" (as Empson called it [7, p.167]) of the poet to give the words that form the allusion a meaning in their own right. This, however, increases the risk of the allusion being missed and if the intrinsic meaning is plausible but weak, the reader may miss much. The poet may intend the reader only to recognise the allusion later, or for only a part of the readership to pick up the allusion - examples are dramatic irony, in-jokes, pantomime asides and innuendo. Plagiarists hope that the marker won't be recognised at all.

Some poems can survive the loss of this allusive power - indeed the reader's attention may be profitably focussed back into the text (for instance, some parodies work even if readers are unaware of the original. Yet there's a certain effect produced by references out of the text, whether they're spoofs or not; they show ways out of the poem, and often ways back in.

identification of evoked text

There is no longer a canon of work that the reader can be expected to know - readership is wider, the Bible is less popular, and there are more books. Modernist authors are more likely to allude to obscure, private, ephemeral or even non-existent texts. When a text refers to many, widely ranging texts, noting one allusion is less likely to prime the reader for the next. To circumvent this, some poems explain even well-known allusions within their text or by footnotes.

modification of the initial local interpretation of the passage

Pre-modernist poems more often than not had a primary meaning, perhaps based on initial observation. Once established, this meaning could pull in an allusion without being overbalanced; the poem's centre of gravity remained within the text. Nowadays, poems need no longer establish a solid melody before improvising. Some set a foundation by alluding to the canon or genre, others don't even try. There has been a re-ordering of linguistic priorities: common, denotative meanings becoming secondary. Where there is no primary meaning, significance is distributed. The poem loses its surface, its graduations of depth. The allusions more prop up than dangle from the poem. Attention is diffused.

activation of evoked text

"While reading text, readers establish local coherence in short-term memory - small scale inferences from few small units of information... These hypotheses are refined as the reading of the text proceeds ... In semantic memory, each concept is connected to a number of other concepts. Activating one concept activates its adjacent concepts which in turn activate their adjacent concepts. Thus, activation spreads through the memory structure, determining what is to be added and what is to be removed from the interpretation of text. This process continues until further activation of adjacent propositions does not change the propositions used to interpret the text." (quoted from [3] which in turn acknowledges [15]). Activitation spreads more easily through and beyond the remote text if there are repeated references to the same text (parody) or if the remote text is far more interesting than the base text, especially if the base text lacks coherence.

Wallace Stevens, in the context of metaphors, said "The proliferation of resemblances extends an object. The point at which this process begins, or rather at which this growth begins, is the point at which ambiguity has been reached" [14]. If what's evoked merges into the presented text, the text becomes "an entrance into a network with a thousand entrances" [4, p.12], and we are as likely to take a further leap away than return to our point of departure. Alternatively, the text alluded to may not so much extend the original text as help create a new third entity. As in "Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts...The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms" [16, p.73-74]. When ordinarily unassociated elements are juxtaposed, the reader is called upon to determine. But if this determination is not logically possible, if the relation between the two is undecidable, something else appears in this gap. Eliot and Pound even spoke of "emotion" in this context.

The Allusion Field

Collage and fragmentation have opened cracks into the text, dissolving the text's boundaries. External references are given equal weighting to internal ones, thus destroying any chance of "organic form" (with its internality, assimilation and wholeness). Inter-textuality's one of the most celebrated concepts of post-structuralism. Barthes considered it a "prerequisite for any text", even for Language Poetry, and thought that it "cannot be reduced to a problem of sources and influences; it is a general field of anonymous formulas whose origin is seldom identifiable, of unconcious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks" [2]. It's more a "semantic atmosphere, or milieu, rather than the possessive individualism of reference" [1, p.36], the particles of reference becoming a field of allusion. The kind of texts that best display these traits are only now coming online. Landow's noted that literary critics and hypertext theoreticians both "argue that we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks." [10] He goes on to say that "Both were looking for solutions to the limitations of the linear, static, discrete texts of the print tradition. They wanted to liberate text from given context. ... both schools advocate 1) treatment of text as small units or lexia, a term used by Barthes, 2) networking and linking of these units, 3) de-centering and equalizing, 4) non-linearity, and 5) interactivity and blurring the line between reader and author." The shared terminology can be taken further

Cohesion and Coupling

In the communication age when texts old and new are easily drawn into the allusion field, closure has become less certain. The effects of this on textual cohesion have been studied. Childs mentions 4 types of textual cohesion: phonic, grammatical, rhetorical and semantic [6, p.98] and points out that modernist texts tend to use different types of cohesion to earlier texts. Analysis of inter/intra-textuality has been matched by work in computer science. In his analysis of the structure of computer programs, Yourdan [17] lists various levels of cohesion that the lines of a module can have; from the weakest to the strongest they are

  • Coincidental
  • Logical (they all do the same type of thing)
  • Temporal (they all need to be done at the same time)
  • Procedural (they form a single task - like parts of a prose description)
  • Communicational (operate on same data)
  • Sequential (the result of one line feeds into the next - narrative)
  • Functional (all must be done for something to work)

If one ignores phonic cohesion then there's a fair but not strong match between the 2 taxonomies.

Computer modules also differ in the extent that they interact with each other. Programmers aim to write modules that have strong cohesion and weak inter-module coupling. Extending these concepts leads to a way of classifying poems. The traditional sonnet tends have strong cohesion (emphasised by the form) and is weakly coupled to other poems, whereas a typical modernist piece (The Waste Land) has weak cohesion and strong coupling/inter-textuality. The cohesion of computer modules isn't easily measured or characterised, but one can make a rough assessment of a poem's cohesion and coupling by comparing the number of internal and external references. If a poem's cohesion is strong then it can survive allusions being missed (and indeed, they're more likely to be missed).


A few illustrations will show how the reader's need to trace allusions varies.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading

The weak semantic and formal cohesion are hallmarks of a modernist text. The weak coupling in this example puts a further strain on the reader.

Her smile - Tim Love

Her smile as she falls asleep -
a bird always
landing on its shadow.

Weak coupling (drawing on the genre but not on any particular text) and strong semantic cohesion typifies the lyric poem.

Animal Lover - Tim Love

Dolphins always smile my way on salmon-
Chanted evenings and hawkmoths wink all night.
O stuffed dodo do what you done done done
Before, you toucan with your songs delight.
Yes, I confess my sole intent; to wit
To woo beasts two by two, pander and bare,
Cheer the worm's turn, watch horses get a bit
On the side, then, with swallowed pride, home where
My faithful quick brown fox jumps just for me.
How long can this go on? Is my fate sealed?
Oh deer, paw me. But if I must I'll flea -
I'll go to the dogs or pick up booze-swilled
Slugs then flock to packed terraces and crow
"O earwig, O earwig, O earwig O!"

The form and thematic continuity do little to disguise the lack of higher level cohesion. The extensive use of puns to convey references means that coupling isn't wholly at the expense of the primary text. The references lead nowhere and don't interlink; if a few are missed it's not the end of the world. They're one-way - the poem doesn't suck significance in from distant texts. The combination of weak cohesion and numerically strong coupling is common in ludic and post-modernist work.

Mummy's Boy

Each Sunday, visiting the home,
you take a pocketful of dust,
praying she won't see it slip away.
Back home you dig with teaspoons
a secret tunnel that only you can ever use.

This is almost a riddle poem. There are 3 allusions to a single key external image - that of a prisoner of war preparing for escape - making for focussed coupling and, in Yourdan’s terms, strong communicational cohesion. Those who know about ‘The Wooden Horse’ have a distinct advantage when reading this piece because attention isn’t drawn to the allusions. The semantic cohesion and a measure of pattern give others some chance of satisfaction, enough to make them think that they haven’t ‘missed something’, although they have. Were it called ‘The Great Escape’ the allusions are less likely to be missed, but the relationship between the two people would be less certain.

Textual metrics

In order to compare poems it’s useful to count the number of internal and external references, as well as the number of texts alluded to. The method needs to be simple to be useful. However, there are some difficulties involved.

  • Number of external references - should an obscure allusion count as much as an explicit allusion? Here, a simple, unweighted count will be used.
  • Number of external sources - should an allusion to a haiku count as much as one to a novel? Here they will both be worth the same.
  • Number of internal references - This is the hardest metric to evaluate. As we have seen, there are many forms of cohesion, some much stronger than others. If a rhyme counts as 1 point, how much should a 10 line description count for? Moreover, different people will have their own idea about the relative importance of links, rhyme, lists, description and narrative as cohesive forces. Subjective impressions are hard to avoid (even software engineers use them). The scheme used here gives one point for: each pair of semantically linked words; each well-formed sentence; each sentence that forms part of a narrative. There are half-points for: each sentence that forms part of a list; each list. The sentence is used as the unit of syntactic binding. Perhaps the clause would be better. Indeed the measurement of coherence could be made far more elaborate, but a relatively easily derived count is sufficient for our purposes.

To see whether these metrics confirm our intuitive responses, let's evaluate the above sample of poems.

Int% Ext% Sources Ext-Int Ext/Sources
Carafe 7 0 0 -7 -
Her Smile27 0 0 -27 -
Animal Lover12 6 6 -6 1
Mummy’s Boy 24 9 3 -15 3

Those who evaluate bridge hands will find the procedure familiar. "Mummy’s Boy" for example has 35 words (including the title). There are 3 references to 1 text (‘The Wooden Horse’). 3/35 is 9%, 1/35 is 3%. There are 4 linked pairs (sunday-praying, praying-dust, home-home, dig-dust) each scoring a point. Each of the two sentences is well constructed, the syntactic binding meriting a point, and the sentences connect, forming a narrative which according to my points scheme adds another point for each sentence. That totals 8 points. 8/35 is about 24%.

The Ext-Int column gives an indication of the allusiveness of the text - a difference seems more appropriate than a ratio. The more negative the number, the more that internal references dominate. If both the Int% and Ext% values are high, allusions are likely to be missed. If the values in the Int% and final columns are high, then there may be an easily missed key text. "Mummy’s Boy" is such a poem. "Animal Lover"’s allusions are less likely to be missed because there are so many sources.

Modernism and post-modernism have increased the variation of these individual parameters and have brought into being texts with new combinations of these parameters, increasing the range of reader responses. Nevertheless a simple metric seems sufficient to predict reader response to the allusions within a text.


1. "The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book", eds B Andrews and C. Bernstein, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
2. "Encyclopaedia Universalis", vol XV, 1973. Barthes
3., V. Balasubramanian
4. "S/Z", Barthes, New York: Hill & Wang, 1974.
5. "The Poetics of Literary Allusion", PTL: A Journal for descriptive poetics and theory of literature 1, Ben-Porot, 1976.
6. "Modernist Form", J. S. Childs, Associated University Presses, 1986.
7. "Seven Types of Ambiguity", W. Empson, Hogarth Press, 1984
8. "Intertextuality, allusion, and quotation: an international bibliography of criticial studies", compiled by Udo J. Hebel, Greenwood Press, 1989.
9. "Literary Quotation and Allusion", Kellet, 1933.
10. "Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology", George P. Landow
11. "The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel", Meyer, Princeton
12. "The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics", Preminger and Brogan, Princeton University Press, 1993.
13. "Principles of Literary Criticism", I.A. Richards, Routlege and Kegan Paul, 1961
14. "The Necessary Angel", Wallace Stevens, 1942
15. "Hypertext '91 Proceedings", Thuring, Manfred, Haake, Jorg M., and Hannemann, 1991.
16. "Statutes of Liberty", Geoff Ward, Macmillan, 1993
17. "Managing the Structured Techniques", E. Yourdon, Prentice-Hall, 1979.

1 comment:

  1. Seems like the explosion of publishing and ignorance of the "classics" make literary allusions less effective and less relevant.