Allusion: Culture and context matter

In Nuce - Allusion: Culture and context matter
Illustration by Willy Pogany. (Source: Folk Tales from Many Lands
An allusion is constrained by culture and context. 

American and Malagasy people make different cultural connections. A person born during the Regency Period would make different contextual connections than a person born during the Roaring Twenties. Differences in backgrounds fuel mighty cultural and generational gaps.

This is where a classical education proves useful—knowledge of the classics ensures that succeeding generations hold common ground

A look at the fashions in a 1957 edition of Vogue shows that some clothing is timeless. A woman could wear the 55-year-old 'classic' outfits today with confidence, while other get-ups would terminally date her.*

Allusions “wear” the same way. An allusion to a classic work of literature crosses cultural and generational boundaries, while an allusion to popular culture is confined to the context of its time.

Case in point is found in “The Children's Hour” by Longfellow.

In the poem, Longfellow describes the close of his working day at home when his three children
...climb up into my turret
O'er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse Tower on the Rhine!
Unless you're a super literary nerd, you may not get the allusion to the Bishop of Bingen, also known as Bishop Hatto, who met a macabre end on the banks of the Rhine in a turret called the Mouse Tower. Actually there's no reason to get it, since it's no more real history than the story of Hansel and Gretel.

However, in 1799, poet Robert Southey re-popularized the fable for his generation in a narrative poem, God's Judgment on a Wicked Bishop.” To orient his audience, Southey borrows a summary of the legend from the travelogue, Coryat's Crudities (1611) . Spelling and punctuation below have been updated:
It happened in the year 914 that there was an exceeding famine in Germany, at what time Otho, surnamed the Great, was Emperor, and one Hatto, once Abbot of Fulda, was Archbishop of Mentz ... This Hatto in the time of ... great famine ... when he saw the poor people of the country exceedingly oppressed with famine, assembled a great company of them together into a barn, and like a most accursed and merciless caitiffe, burnt up those poor innocent souls, that were so far from doubting any such matter, that they rather hoped to have received some comfort and relief at his hands.
The reason that moved the Prelate to commit that execrable impiety, was because he thought that the famine would the sooner cease, if those unprofitable beggars that consumed more bread than they were worthy to eat, were dispatched out of the world. For he said that these poor folks were like to mice, that were good for nothing but to devour corn.
But Almighty God, the just revenger of the poor folks' quarrel, did not long suffer this heinous tyranny, this most detestable fact unpunished. For he mustered up an army of mice against the Archbishop, and sent them to persecute him as his furious Alastors,** so that they afflicted him both day and night, and would not suffer him to take his rest in any place. Whereupon the Prelate, thinking that he should be secure from the injury of mice if he were in a certain tower that stands in the Rhine near to the town, took himself to the said tower as to a safe refuge and sanctuary from his enemies, and locked himself in.
But the innumerable troupes of mice continually chased him very eagerly, and swam to him upon the top of the water to execute the just judgment of God, and so at last he was most miserably devoured by those silly creatures, who pursued him with such bitter hostility that it is recorded they scraped and gnawed off his very name from the walls and tapestry wherein it was written, after they had so cruelly devoured his body. Wherefore the tower in which he was eaten up by the mice is shown to this day for a perpetual monument to all succeeding ages of the barbarous and inhumane tyranny of that impious prelate, ... and is commonly called in the German tongue the Mouse Tower.
So now you know. 

Longfellow's lighthearted comparison of his children to devouring mice is actually a little creepy, but to most of us the allusion is lost in time. Instead, we enjoy the bigger picture of parental delight that transcends time.

*Spent last weekend looking at old Vogues.
** An allusion! 

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