On Literary Allusions in Contemporary Writing

“In the past our culture’s body of common knowledge — its frame of reference, its possibility of comprehensible allusion — changed slowly and superficially; the amount added to it or taken away from it, in any ten years, was surprisingly small. Now in any ten years a surprisingly large proportion of the whole is replaced.” (Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket 74 [1962]).

American Etymologist Bryan Garner cited the above quotation (from American poet Randall Jarrell) to support the argument he made in his recent blog that allusions to classic (western) literary texts are becoming increasingly unknown to new generations of readers. These students and armchair bookworms don’t recognize references to specific lines of poetry, drama or verse, including such as prominent as Shakespeare’s.

Garner gives the example that students will recognize the “To be or not to be” phrase of Hamlet’s soliloquy , but miss the lesser known portion of that same speech, where the Danish prince refers to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (Hamlet 3.1.61-62, emphasis added).

You may ask: why does it matter, anyway?

Garner (who tries not to be pedantic in his analysis), argues that such an “allusion works well even for the reader who doesn’t recognize the Shakespearean echo. Ideally, the words in an allusion flatter those who recognize it while not bothering those who don’t” (“Tip of the Day,” February 17, 2015).

The function of literary allusions has been discussed by scholars for generations and influences many forms of art. But Garner says that a (correct) “allusion, if it isn’t too arcane, can add substantially to the subtlety and effectiveness of writing. To work, the allusion should refer to a common body of literature with which every cultured person is familiar.”

But he goes on to acknowledge: “Increasingly, though, there isn’t any such body of literature. . . . So it’s hard to bring off a good allusion if it doesn’t relate to current events or popular culture.”

Those of us who studied literary classics in the age before Google, mobile technology and social media, it can be hard not to feel sad at how reading and writing have changed, in the last 10 to 15 years. So much seems lost. And yet, writers like celebrated marketer, cultural critic and poetry lover Seth Godin (to name only one) find much in today’s world that is creative, rigourous, and involves readers or consumers who can participate (more than ever before) in the making of art.

Mistakes in literary allusion made by inexperienced speakers can become humourous (or embarrassing, depending on your point-of-view). Such is evident with malaproprisms (i.e. quotations whose errors inadvertently become funny).  Many years ago, I recall hearing a student misquote those much cited Robert Browning lines (from “Andrea del Sarto”):  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his gasp [sic – “grasp”] / Or what’s a heaven for?”  Literary allusion is bungled there.

Garner doesn’t take sides on the issue of lost literary reference. He instead notices its passing. What is your view of misrecognized or unrecognized classic reading, writing and artistic history? What do you notice has been gained? If you write for the business world, how has the creative landscape changed through quoted authorities, buzz words and other elements, in recent years?

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