AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Allusion

AP* Lit Essential Skill 6.D focuses on the function of allusion. Allusion is not a complicated device to spot, but students sometimes struggle with explaining its function. The key lies in analyzing the bridge between the text and the alluded work.

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Introducing Allusion With Interstellar

The Science of 'Interstellar': Black Holes, Wormholes and Space Travel |  Space
Click the image for a recitation of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” paired with scenes from the movie.

One of my favorite movies is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Nolan’s movies are known for his creative and mind-bending plots and Interstellar is no exception. What makes it my favorite, however, is the recurring allusion to Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

Here’s the general premise: The movie takes place on Earth 30-40 years in the future, when blight is taking over the world’s crops and it faces a global food shortage. The almost-defunct NASA has formed two plans for the future: saving the world, and leaving it. While one team stays behind to think of ways to save it, another team of astronauts travel via wormhole into a new galaxy. Several explorers traveled there years before and have been sending back data on three different planets, which could be potential homes for those leaving Earth. The astronauts struggle with the unknown, with the elements, but more than anything they struggle against time. Due to science that I will not even attempt to understand, the team faces various “time slippages,” where one hour in their time may equal seven years lost back on Earth.

In this scene, the astronauts are embarking on their interstellar mission, preparing for seven months of hypersleep. Professor Brand, a NASA scientist and father to one of the astronauts, sends the explorers off with a recitation of Thomas’ poem.

Still shot from Insterstellar
Clip from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

After viewing this clip, read Thomas’ poem in its entirety. Ask students what connections they can make between the poem and the astronauts’ situation. What predictions would they make on the mission? On the Earth’s future?

For those who don’t know, Dylan Thomas wrote his poem as he witnessed his father’s struggle against a terminal illness. Although he knows he will eventually die, the speaker pleads for the subject to “not go gently” towards death, but to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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The function of this poem enhances the feelings of a hopeless fight. Death waits for all of us, no one can “rage against” it forever. And yet, Professor Brand and the astronauts in space refuse to give up and let the Earth and its inhabitants die. They push boundaries and “rage” into the unknown. Many view this scene as either cautiously optimistic or foolishly hopeful.

One more thing, this moment in the film is not the only time the poem is recited. Professor Brand records it several times in his messages to his daughter. He also recites it on his deathbed, as his protégé learns that he already discovered that Earth cannot be saved. And finally, it is recited by another astronaut as he attempts to maroon his crew and save himself. While the poem is first said with hope, it eventually becomes paired with hopeless situations.

Allusions as a Bridge

One way that might help students understand allusion and its function is to describe it as a bridge. The way I see it, the author inserted a reference to a separate work to help link meaning between the central text and the second work. To analyze function, you must analyze the link, or bridge, between the two works. Often times these bridges help us form a strong and creative interpretation, as long as it’s supported by textual evidence.

Northern Pacific-BNSF Minneapolis Rail Bridge - Wikipedia

Focus Poem & Questions – “Out, Out–”

Out, Out poem lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers - AP Lit & More
Click here to see a full lesson on “Out, Out–” on TpT, including expansion opportunities and a writing prompt!

To analyze allusion and its function in poetry, I chose to study Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out–.” There were many poems to choose from but Frost’s poem uses allusion in a subtle but powerful way, one that may not be evident without real discussion.

Questions for Robert Frost’s “Out, Out–”

  1. This is a narrative poem. What is the overall plot?
  2. What figurative elements can you find in the poem?
  3. Where is the poem’s allusion?
  4. What connections can you find between the alluded text and Frost’s narrative? Use text to support your interpretation!
  5. Overall, what is the function of the allusion? How does it work as a “bridge” to an interpretation?

Teacher’s Guide for “Out, Out–”

Text from Macbeth's final speech
from Macbeth, Act V, scene 5
  1. Frost’s poem describes a tragedy on a Vermont farm when a young boy nearly severs his hand with the saw he’s been operating. The boy struggles to keep his hand attached, knowing that he’s useless on the farm without a hand. The poem shifts to the scene of the family waiting at the hospital as the boy dies under ether. It ends with the family returning to their normal life, “since they were not the one dead.”
  2. The poem personifies the “buzz saw” as the boy’s antagonist, hinting that it may have “leaped out at the boy’s hand.” Frost also uses a metonym describing the boy avoiding the “life from spilling,” rather than the blood.
  3. The poem’s central allusion is in the title. It refers to Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act V, right after he is told of his wife’s death. Interestingly, Frost only included the phrase “Out, Out,” rather than any of the figurative images Shakespeare uses to describe the meaninglessness of life itself.
  4. Macbeth describe’s life as a “brief candle,” “a walking shadow,” and a “poor player.” He sounds hopeless and pessimistic, claiming that while life may be “full of sound and fury,” ultimately it is “signifying nothing.” This bleak outlook matches blunt and emotionless reaction to the tragedy of “Out, Out–.” After the boy’s accident he pleads with his sister, “Don’t let him cut my hand off,” knowing already that “all was spoiled.” Likewise, the family’s reaction to the young boy’s death is emotionless and impersonal. When the boy dies the speaker simply says, “and that ended it.” The family “turn[s] to their affairs” since they must continue with the work that remains.
  5. The function of the allusion is to add depth to the hopeless message behind Frost’s poem. It bridges between the pessimistic message of Macbeth’s final moments to the emotionless reaction of the family in the poem. Without the allusion, the family may just seem heartless and selfish. Macbeth’s message, however, adds depth to their reaction. They aren’t returning to their affairs because they didn’t love the boy, but because that’s life. Really, “life’s but a walking shadow,” and the family can’t spent too much time in grief, lest they destroy their own lives.

Suggested Poems for Studying FIG 6.D

Thanks to the AP® Lit Facebook community for these poem suggestions, to help enhance your study of allusion.

  • “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus
  • “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats
  • “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost
  • “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden
  • “Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Cinderella” by Anne Sexton
  • “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti
  • “Ego-Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni
  • “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold
  • “Gretel in Darkness” by Louise Glück
  • “Hazel Tells Laverne” by Katharyn Machan Aal
  • “Siren Song” by Margaret Atwood
  • “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats
  • “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
  • “An Ancient Gesture” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Easter Wings” by George Herbert
  • “The Lamb” or “The Tyger” by William Blake
  • “Pathedy of Manners” by Ellen Kay
  • “America” by Richard Blanco

There were also quite a few song suggestions for teaching allusion:

  • “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay
  • “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones
  • “Girl in the War” by Josh Ritter
  • “You’re the Top” by Cole Porter
  • “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
  • “Black Parade” by Beyoncé
  • “On My Block” by Scarface
  • “Be Real Black With Me” by Donny Hathaway
  • “Love Story” by Taylor Swift
  • “I’m Not Racist” by Joyner Lucas
AP Skill Spotlights
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