One of the things I love in reading is the sudden expansion of consciousness that you get when an allusion comes alive in your mind. My most vivid reading memories from teenage years involve experiences of that kind.

In one, I was fourteen, in a Spartan holiday camp in the lovely Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, reading C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. We children were in one chilly, bare-floored, stone-walled ‘rondavel’ hut, our parents in another. Suddenly I came on the statement that Merlin’s magic ultimately derived from … Numenor! I loved The Lord of the Rings and had already read it several times. More than fifty years later I can remember the physical shock reading Lewis’s allusion gave me, how it made me leap off the bed I was on and run from our rondavel to my parent’s one to babble about it out to my father. This coming together of the two books was like an explosion in my brain as The Lord of the Rings suddenly came alive alongside or underneath That Hideous Strength and poured its energy through it.

For allusion to work like this, both the work that alludes and the one that’s alluded to should be separate active presences in your mind before they combine. There’s a reverse shadow of this process whereby you’re shown an allusion to something you don’t know and you follow it up to the point where the work alluded to becomes a full, independent force for you, expanding your consciousness in its own right and way as well as opening a fresh vista within the work that alludes.

Most of  the time, I suppose, allusion brings a quieter pleasure, neither a sudden imaginative explosion nor the discovery of a new reading interest but the sense of imaginative threads being gathered together or of perspectives opening as one walks round a garden or dark side streets opening off the lit road one’s walking down.

What I think is imaginatively and aesthetically almost valueless, however academically useful it may be, is the kind of secondary allusion-gathering whereby some reader’s guide points out a reference and you simply clock it, taking its point on trust.

An example, in my own case, would be the allusion to Ezekiel in the second part of ‘Ash Wednesday’. I love the singing of the scattered bones, find what they say haunting and poignant, and think that in reading the passage I’m in touch with the feelings Eliot was trying to evoke. The Commentary in Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue’s The Poems of T. S. Eliot gives the passage from Ezekiel 37, 1 – 11 that Eliot draws on, and it is delightful in itself. I can’t say it’s made any difference to my sense of ‘Ash Wednesday’, though. Before it can do that I’ll need to absorb it separately and in the context of absorbing the whole Book of Ezekiel. I suspect that won’t really change anything in my understanding of the poem. I suspect Eliot has imported and recreated everything he needed for his immediate purposes. What I can never have is the shock of pleasure I can imagine some readers felt in seeing how Eliot had given new meaning to something they’d already absorbed in Bible classes or reading – or the sense of reprobation others no doubt felt in seeing something important to them misappropriated, as they’d see it, to purposes they disapproved of.


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