Contemporary Allusion

[Warning: Drier than usual.]

I recently read an academic book from 1886 about Elizabethan theater, and the author, A.W. Verity, made a lot of references to literature as he wrote. He made a lot of references to Elizabethan playwrights, of course, and to critics who had edited and discussed them previously, but he also drops in miscellaneous “off-topic” allusions: He compares Richard III to Mr. Hyde, for example, or he compares Marlowe sweeping away clasinfluenceofchris00veri_0007.jpgsical stage conventions to the Walrus and the Carpenter sweeping away “such quantities of sand.”

There’s always the danger, in making allusions, that the reference will make no sense in even a couple of years, the referent having disappeared like Baby Jessica down a well (see what I did there?). This is why you probably shouldn’t have characters say “rustle my jimmies” or “such doge” in a book. I was surprised, while reading Verity’s book, though, not only by the large number of contemporary (for 1886) allusions, but also by the fact that they have not aged over the last 130 years. When Verity name-drops Milton or Samuel Johnson (as he does), let alone Shakespeare, it’s less surprising that the name should have remained famous. But the references he makes to texts from not long before his day…

Okay, so I made below a list of every reference Verity makes in his short book, excluding critical works on Elizabethans and restricting it to nineteenth century figures. Next to each work, in bold, in the number of years before publication that the book was released, and then, in italics, the equivalent relative date if Verity’s book was published today.

RLS’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1886): 0: 2016
Tennyson’s Becket (1884): 2: 2014
Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872): 14: 2002
George Eliot’s Silas Marner (1861): 25: 1991
Dickens’s Bleak House (1853): 33: 1983
Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” (1849): 37: 1979
Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (1839): 47: 1969
Percy Shelley’s “Mighty Eagle” (1817): 69: 1947
Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816): 70: 1946
Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” (1807): 79: 1937

I have tried to make this list complete, but of course I may have missed something.

In addition, Verity makes allusions to various nineteenth-century writers without particularly referencing any particular work. Here they are, with birth and death dates for reference:

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

(I know I said i was leaving out Elizabethan critics, but have included several people who wrote about the Elizabethan stage; I only included them if they were also alluded to for other reasons. Swinburne, for example, is cited several times for his work on Shakespeare, but also once for his criticism of Wordsworth.)

You may not have recognized every piece listed above — “Mighty Eagle” is obscure enough to be included in The Unfamiliar Shelley — but you should recognize every author. Perhaps Schiller and Swinburne are not household names even among the literate, but Schiller is famous enough to be the figurehead of a money-laundering front for Lyndon LaRouche (alleged, I should say) and Swinburne is still all over the Norton anthology.

Now try to imagine that you face a parallel situation to Verity’s. Imagine that you are writing a book and want to make a contemporary allusion, one that will still be understood in 130 years. This is what boggles my mind. Try to come up with a book from this year that will be as recognizable in 130 years as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s, or one from 2002 as canonical as Alice’s.

Obviously no one knows what piece of pop culture ephemera will last to 2146. “Dr. Livingston, I presume” was the catch phrase of the day 144 years ago, and I’d wager no one would have expected it to linger in the popular consciousness this long. But I am not confident that any recent work will last through the ages, which is what makes Verity’s roster so impressive.

It’s possible that

  1. Verity had his finger on the pulse of the future, or was particularly skilled (or lucky?) as guessing what would remain.12433914131
  2. There are like a hundred allusions in the book to forgotten things and I just didn’t notice them because I only noticed allusions I recognize.
  3. Books (or texts in a larger sense) from the past just had a longer “shelf life,” perhaps because there were fewer of them.

But I’ve learned, and am constantly learning, that the past is full of popular annuals that bloomed for a season and were never heard from again. Ten Nights in a Barroom was the “second most popular book of the Victorian era” and who’s ever heard of that? The similarly themed nineteenth-century tearjerker “The Face on the Barroom Floor” inspired the title of one of my favorite cartoon collections, and I had never heard of the poem, and had no idea the book was even an allusion, until last week.

And I tried googling the mysterious parts to make sure I didn’t miss any allusions. I’m sure I missed something, but there couldn’t have been very many.

So is Verity just a prophet? Or did the past know better, or sooner, what books — even what light entertainment, like Alice or Jekyll and Hyde, would remain? The “barroom” texts mentioned above are lowbrow fare.

In 130 more years I assume we’ll still know Shakespeare, and probably Dickens. Scott’s star is much lower than it was in 1886, although people still know of Ivanhoe. Will the rest remain?



  1. Two things, 1. people barely read books these days because other media have to a certain degree replaced them. In the 19th century, how many forms of narrative entertainment were there that were mass produced? I can only come up with novels and I guess poems. Plays may count as mass produced if one just considers distributing the printed text. Books were the only narrative entertainments that could reach most people. Nowadays there are movies, serialized television shows and god knows what else, which most people (certainly most people who would decide what is to be in the canon) have access to. It is not surprising that much of the common popular culture is no longer novel related.

    2. Even if we are to count film and television shows, I still do not think there is anything I would be confident would be common knowledge 100 years from now. As the ability to produce, copy and distribute works has increased, so have the number of works and sub-genres and sub-cultures. There is less of a mono-culture now than there was 60 years ago, as different groups like different things (or perhaps as you would say, different demographics use different texts to signal their memberships). As a result, there is a lack of consensus regarding what is a great text. I do not know if there is less of a mono-culture and consensus on what constitutes a great text nowadays then there was in the late 19th century, although I suspect there is.

    Anyhow, I cannot confidently come up with anything that I think will be well known in 100 years. Although this may just be my own personal uncertainty, since I also have trouble even coming up with post-WWII texts that I am confident will be considered canonical in 100 years (although I have far more confidence there than in recent texts).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yes, I should have made clearer that I’m wondering what texts in a broader sense will be remembered in a century, not merely what books.

      I’ve twice read confident prediction made in the early twentieth century of the enduring canonicity — in this case specifically focusing on high school classroom presence — of texts. One was about Burke’s Speech on Conciliation; the other one Macaulay’s Essays. Needless to say I encountered neither in school.

      My money is that from an 1886 viewpoint the biggest surprise will be how little read Walter Scott is 100+ years later.

      I think it’s amazing that Verity managed to pinpoint Jekyll and Hyde the year it came out as something enduring. Obviously this book is not the most canonical text in Harold Bloom’s terms, but it has a cultural cache far exceeding anything else on Verity’s list. Much like Christmas Carol, I knew the basics of Jekyll and Hyde long, long, before I read it. Everyone in America, even those who will never read this or any other nineteenth-century book, know Jekyll and Hyde.

      Twentieth century texts I think will still be remembered in a century: Great Gatsby, Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, maybe Casablanca.

      Postwar texts: Lolita, Star Wars…

      Already forgotten and dropped from the ’90s nostalgia wheel: Home Improvement.


      1. Star Wars is a good guess. Lolita was the only book I could come up with, but I was unsure if that was just my personal tastes shining through. It probably will continue on to be shorthand for sexy schoolgirl with its literary merit being ignored by most people much as everyone knows more or less what Jekyll and Hyde is about without actually knowing it.

        Liked by 1 person

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