Allusions and delusions


Poems, songs, and sermons often allude to things the writer believes to be already known by the audience.

Allusions are simply indirect references. In its oldest sense, an allusion was an indirect reference to classical or biblical literature.

So, at the beginning of Hamlet, the prince compares his dead father to Hyperion and his uncle to a satyr. These are allusions to Greek mythology.

And, toward the end of Hamlet, the prince says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” There, Hamlet is alluding to Jesus’s words in The Gospel of Matthew 10:29-30.

Shakespeare wrote in a time when, as he assumed, most of his audience would have some familiarity with both ancient pagan mythology and the Bible.

But, a writer can’t always control the makeup of the audience.

A quick example: While I’m a fan of T.S. Eliot for particular reasons, he wrote some poems that cannot be understood without a classical education and a broad reading experience. Sometimes, Eliot is just “over my head.”

His Anglo-Catholic point of view might have made some of his Christian poems just as opaque as some of his other works.

Eliot’s work was full of literary allusions, and I’m sure those references have made for some wild interpretations that would amuse Eliot and horrify him.

Those allusions could lead to nearly delusional interpretations in the minds of those who are not prepared to read them.

While a writer might have a specific audience in mind, she is probably not worried about keeping people out of the audience.

So when someone “sneaks in,” so to speak, the reader might find himself confused, insulted, exasperated, baffled, or mortified by what has been written, sung, or spoken, because the allusions don’t make sense.

The difficulty for the individual reader is to know when she has really misunderstood something.

For example, the first time I read them, I did not understand William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” or, in a different stream, Russell Edson’s prose poems.

But now that I’ve learned a bit more and spent a bit more time with those literary works, I at least can say I’ve started to understand what these writers were trying to accomplish.

I would not ask you to like those poems, and I would only discuss them with you if you had already expressed an interest in the writers, the works, or related matters. They’re quite different within the body of available poems. “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Edson’s prose poems aren’t for everyone — and few writers should even try to be for everyone.

If someone else “sneaks in” and noisily announces his confusion, insulted-ness, exasperation, bafflement, or mortification, well, that’s the risk the writer takes. The writer just hopes he can reach his intended audience.

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