All is Allusion

Allusions know their audience and trust them to understand the hidden reference. Allusions invite the reader into a kind of club with other people who ‘get it’. This is normally a good feeling for those who spot the allusion. Allusions are clever, observant or open-minded. There is an awareness of culture that stretches beyond the world of what is taught in the classroom, that is drawn upon in order to manipulate people’s responses to the work produced. Allusions create effects. They exist in the realm of metaphor – there’s a substitution happening that allows a reader to read or see one thing and understand another.

Class Activity

How many of these classical allusions do you recognise and can explain? Discuss them with each other before you click here for the answers:

  • The protean shifts in policy over the last ten years have been dizzying
  • Like Icarus, I knew I was doomed to fail.
  • Speaking in her best Cassandra voice, Mrs Jones stated why she didn’t expect the new targets to be met.
  • The Dionysian celebrations resulted in some sore heads next morning.
  • Getting all your IB homework done can feel like a Sisyphean task.
  • I was saved by a deus ex-machina phone call: the examiner’s car had broken down so it didn’t matter that I had forgotten to revise.
  • I would ask you to open your locker, but I don’t want to open Pandora’s box.
  • The Delphic feedback left me scratching my head – what was I meant to do next?
  • My assessment deadlines hung over me like the sword of Damocles.
  • This gordian problem is just too hard to solve.

Learner Portfolio

Write a piece in which you use allusion from a particular area: these areas are normally classical, historical, cultural or literary.

Body of Work: Bob Dylan’s Protest Songs

In January 1962, hoping to be asked to perform at an upcoming CORE benefit, Dylan wrote The Ballad of Emmett Till, about a fourteen-year-old African American who was beaten and shot to death in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. It was Dylan’s first “protest” song. Within a year, he wrote several other topical songs, including Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues (poking fun at the right-wing organization), Let Me Die in My Footsteps (a critique of the Cold War hysteria that led Americans to build bomb shelters), Oxford Town (about the riots when James Meredith became the first black student admitted to University of Mississippi), Paths of Victory (about the civil rights marches), and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall (about the fear of nuclear war, which he premiered at a Carnegie Hall concert a month before the Cuban missile crisis made that fear more tangible). These songs were published in a new magazine, Broadside, that sought to encourage topical songs as part of movements for change.

The Dissent, The Political Bob Dylan, 2011

When the makers of Hollywood movies, documentary films, or TV news programs want to evoke the spirit of the 1960s, they typically show clips of long-haired hippies dancing at a festival, protestors marching at an antiwar rally, or students holding a sit-in, with one of two songs by Bob Dylan — Blowin’ in the Wind or The Times They Are a-Changin — playing in the background. Journalists and historians often treat Dylan’s songs as emblematic of the era and Dylan himself as the quintessential “protest” singer.

Take these songs and work on them in class with your teacher. Explore how Dylan uses allusion, the collision of high and popular cultures, as well as other literary techniques in writing his songs. You can also read about Bob Dylan at the following places:

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt:

Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Bob Dylan’s song lyrics would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. The named author would, of course, be ‘Bob Dylan.’ His songs can be explored in light of many Global Issues, although you might like to think about focusing on either Politics, Power and Justice or Art, Creativity and Imagination. You could pair one of his songs with any number of extracts from your literary works that deal with these issues. The suggestions below are ideas you may like to consider, although you should speak with your teacher as these are just examples to show you what you could do:

  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – especially Act 2 in which Eliza’s protests are ignored by Higgins.
  • Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads – both Wordsworth and Dylan are counter-cultural icons, writing in protest against injustices and issues of the day, and they both employ musicality to create effects in their writing.
  • Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions – compare way Dylan protests through music and lyrics to the methods Tambu uses when she stands up to first her parents, then Babamakuru.
  • Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – in particular the importance of appreciating music to the understanding of Christian and Jewish identities.


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