Friday, October 1, 2010


This morning I was reading in James Lee Burke’s novel, Pegasus Descending when I came upon a passage I recognized as an allusion, but one I couldn’t identify. Burke’s sentence was this: ‘Our appointment in Samarra is made for us without our consent, and Death finds us of its own accord and in its own time.’ Appointment in Samarra is the title of a 1934 John O’Hara novel, which uses as an epigraph an earlier story taken from Somerset Maugham. Burke’s line took on a clearer and richer meaning after reading a short synopsis of the old story — In Baghdad, a merchant sends his servant to the marketplace, but the servant soon returns pale and trembling, saying that he jostled a woman he recognized as Death, that she made a threatening gesture. He flees to Samarra, where he believes Death will not find him. Concerned abut his servant, the merchant goes to the marketplace, finds death and asks about her threatening gesture to his servant. She answers that her gesture was, on the contrary one of surprise at seeing the servant in Baghdad, and continuing…“Surprised because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Not many many pages later Burke alludes to the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when he writes, ‘But I still had miles to go before I slept,’ hinting at a similar complexity that had troubled the Frost character. Most fans of Burke will agree that his frequent use of allusion heightens the impact of his stories.

‘Allusion’ is a word we have taken from the Latin alussio meaning ‘to play with, to touch lightly upon,’ Most of us learned somewhere during high school or college that an allusion is a figure of speech that makes reference to, or representation of, a place, event, literary work, or work of art, sometimes directly, sometimes by implication.

Modern writers, for the most part, have pretty much abandoned the use of allusion in their writing, but a great many earlier writers (particularly the more classical) relied upon allusion to add depth and erudition to their writing. It was also a way to draw parallels in linking one writer’s thought to another, to broaden the basis of a position or argument. In modern terms the parenthesis to allusion might be something like, ‘the great so and so said the same thing, like this…’ Allusion was in fact a common tool for classical writers, and while its use among modern writers has declined, it certainly hasn’t disappeared, and we can still enjoy the extra richness it brings to our reading, fiction or otherwise.

Another recent example that sent me off to the reference desk comes from Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. In a section about one of his main characters, he writes… ‘In Hartford as a junior counsel he would walk along the narrow paths with Wallace Stevens, of all people, both men in sleeveless shirts. It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee.’ I was confused by this sudden non-sequitur in italics, and so typed it into Google. The line comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Anecdote of the Jar,” a rather difficult work to fathom, but somewhere in there is the idea of authority. By no means a Eureka! type of unveiling, but I did finally conclude that McCann’s use of the line was probably an allusion to the authority of his character’s position as a New York judge. Once again I felt as though the allusion had added some salt to the character, as well as to the story.

One last example is the history-making 1963 speech by Dr Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream,” a veritable gold mine of allusions to literature, song, drama, Bible and historical documents. At one point in his speech King alludes to Shakespeare’s Richard III in saying, ‘This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.’ In the final lines he calls up the words of a traditional African-American spiritual when he says, “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” knowing that the majority of his listeners will be able to quote with him the final words of his speech.

Frankly, Dr King’s speech would have been weakened without his powerful use of allusion.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America