"Mrs. Aesop" is chock full of allusions. The first—and most important—allusion is in the title itself, “Mrs. Aesop,” which alludes to Aesop, an ancient Greek storyteller famous for his fables:
- While not much is known about Aesop, including whether he ever really existed, the ancient stories do say that he was small and ugly, which Mrs. Aesop notes in the poem.
- Whether he was real or not, many fables have been attributed to Aesop. The poem alludes to some of his most famous fables, including "The Lion and the Mouse," "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Donkey in Lion's Skin," "The Dog in the Manger," "The Fox and the Grapes," and more.
- Duffy doesn’t include these many allusions to Aesop’s fables to celebrate the famous storyteller. Since Mrs. Aesop sees her husband as a condescending, moralistic bore, she alludes to his own fables to critique, make fun of, and ultimately emasculate him.
One way the poem uses allusion to critique Aesop is through direct quotes. In lines 2-3 ("Dead men,
Mrs Aesop, he'd say, tell no tales"), 14-15 ("Slow / but certain, Mrs Aesop, wins the race"), and 19-20 ("Action, Mrs A., speaks louder / than words") the poem quotes Aesop directly reciting the morals to some of his stories, after which Mrs. Aesop immediately says something degrading about him.
For example, after Aesop says, "Action, Mrs A., speaks louder / than words," Mrs. Aesop pivots to her most biting critique of her husband: their sex life sucks. The effect is simple: direct allusion to a fable is directly correlated with anti-Aesop feeling.
Another way the poem uses allusion is by referencing components of one of Aesop's fables. In the second stanza, Mrs. Aesop mentions a "shy mouse […] a sly fox […] one particular swallow / that couldn’t make a summer." Each of these alludes to a specific fable ("The Lion and the Mouse," "The Fox and the Crow," and "The Swallow and the Crow" respectively), but doesn't expand to include other parts of the fable. By excluding the morals those animals correspond to, the poem shows how Mrs. Aesop really just doesn't care about the fables in the first place.
The final and most cutting way Mrs. Aesop alludes to her husband's fables is to use the language of fables in a way that makes fun of her husband. "The bird in his hand shat on his sleeve," she says, disrupting the moral of the fable "The Hawk and the Nightingale" ("a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush") to disrespect Aesop, only to continue by calling the birds from the fable "worth less" anyway.
In the final stanza, Mrs. Aesop bitingly twists other well-known idioms, including "the pot calling the kettle black" and "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face," to directly threaten his masculinity.