Thursday, 5 November 2009

Literary Allusions

The woman opposite me on the Tube today was reading some supplement or other on the title page of which was the headline LAWLESS IN AFRICA, which was, presumably, some sort of reference to Samson Agonistes and Eyeless in Gaza.

On the way back, after three pints in The Four Posts, I was reading the Evening Standard and there was the headline on a Brian Sewell article THE PAINT'S THE THING, which presumably was some sort of reference to:

The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

But why? What was the point of these literary allusions? What? WHAT? I mean, throw me a fricking bone here. I scoured that article for some sort of reference to wanting to find out whether your uncle/stepfather had murdered your father. There wasn't one. Why are there so many subeditors and so much unused rope?


  1. Isn't that the point of being a subeditor? Punning and playfulness and literary allusion? I think it's almost a convention - if you can squeeze a pun or spurious literary reference into a headline, it would be wrong not to. It always fills me with delight to read this sort of headline, partly in a smug way (as if being able to recognise or quote Shakespeare and Milton makes you part of a special literary club) but mostly because wordplay is fun, and there is something impressive about the headline writer's inventiveness.

  2. Ah, but actual wordplay I wouldn't mind at all. A pun is funny or it is nothing. Is this a blagger that I see before me? Would, at least, be a joke. Is this a computer keyboard that I see before me is not.
    Nor do I mind quotation. It is the pun that has forgotten its reason, the eunuch pun.

  3. More precisely, an illusion adds meaning by summoning to memory the power of the original text. This can be used in all sorts of ways: it might add grandeur to quote the Bible, but it might also be funny by its difference: a pint, a pint, my kingdom for a pint.
    The problem with the headlines is that there is neither connection nor contrast, only stale reference for reference's sake.

  4. I think you mean allusion and not illusion. But you have won me round with your argument.

  5. late to commenting on this post, but, hooray! I notice this in academic writing: allusions to Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot that serve no purpose within the text (or even undermine the argument), and seem to earn their place merely as evidence that the author has (once) looked at (or heard of) the poet in question. Rant over. Continue normally.