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Notes on Ekphrasis

Written by

Alfred Corn
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Ekphrasis (also spelled "ecphrasis") is a direct transcription from the Greek ek, "out of," and phrasis, "speech" or "expression." It's often been translated simply as "description," and seems originally to have been used as a rhetorical term designating a passage in prose or poetry that describes something. More narrowly, it could designate a passage providing a short speech attributed to a mute work of visual art. In recent decades, the use of the term has been limited, first, to visual description and then even more specifically to the description of a real or imagined work of visual art.

The use of visual description in poetry is a huge subject, and a good treatment of the topic is found in Carol T. Christ's study The Finer Optic. Descriptions, in poems, of works of music, cinema, or choreography might also qualify as instances of ekphrasis. But these notes will be concerned only with descriptions of works of visual art in a poem, not with description in general, or with description of other kinds of art.

Horace, in his Epistles, writes a verse letter to his friend Pisos, the opening lines of which develop the metaphor of painting as a means of criticizing arbitrary combinations of incompatible components in a poem. (This is the third letter of Book II of the Epistles.) Beginning at line 361, in a passage that includes the phrase ut pictura poesis ("like a picture, poetry," or "poetry is like a painting") Horace makes a comparison between the two arts. These lines are often cited as the foundational text establishing a connection between visual and verbal art. But note that Horace describes no particular painting; he refers abstractly to various aspects of the art of painting purely as a metaphor to get at the good or bad qualities a poem may exhibit.

The earliest and best known example of ekphrasis is the long description of the shield made by Hephaistos and given to Achilles by his mother Thetis. (The passage is found in Book 18 of the Iliad.) Low-relief sculpture embossed in metal on the surface of the shield is described in elaborate detail. Hephaistos's subjects include constellations, pastures, dancing, and great cities. In fact, visual notation is so extensive that critics have commented that no actual shield in the real world would be able to contain the disparate elements mentioned.

So then Homer has imagined a work of art that could not, materially, exist. The immaterial nature of verbal art allows him to do this. The effect on the reader of his description is multi-faceted. On one hand, it tends to move the narrative farther away from ordinary plausibility. On the other, it provides a dreamlike expansion of the subject at hand and allows the poet to make oblique comments on the Iliad's main narrative.

Similar to Homer's description of Achilles's shield, though briefer, is the description in Book I of Virgil's Aeneid, beginning at line 450, of the carvings on the wall of the temple Aeneas visits when he first comes to Carthage. Depicted are scenes from the Trojan War, which alert the exiled hero to the fact that the story of the Trojan War and his part in it are already legendary.

Another notable instance of ekphrasis occurs in Canto X of Dante's Purgatorio, where the pilgrim poet describes low relief sculptures in white marble carved on the side of the mountain of Purgatory, next to its upward track. These carvings depict Biblical and classical examples of the virtue of humility: the Annunciation, David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, and the Roman Emperor Trajan addressing the mother of a soldier who has been killed.

Purgatorio in Dante consists of an upwardly spiraling climb around a mountain, and it may well be Trajan's column in Rome that provided him with the visual form for it. That monument is covered with low relief sculptures of scenes from the Dacian War, and, scene by scene, like frames in a comic strip, they rise upward in helical fashion from bottom to top. In Canto X, Dante not only describes the encounter between Trajan and the bereaved mother, he gives us their dialogue and then refers to it as esto visibleparlare, "this visible speaking." In other words, something magical has occurred: a work of visual art has somehow managed to convey an exchange of speech.

Another classic instance of ekphrasis occurs in Book III of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which is concerned with the virtue of chastity. Britomart comes to the house of sorcerer Busyrane, where she sees tapestries depicting Jove's amorous exploits, a contrary example of the virtue being dealt with.

After Milton, when epic-length poems become rarer in English-language poetry, the use of ekphrasis is limited to shorter poems, for example, Marvell's "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers"; or Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" and "To Haydon with a Sonnet Written on Seeing the Elgin Marbles"; Shelley's "On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery"; and Browning's "My Last Duchess." But some long poems as well include them, for example, Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

In the two English-language cases where a poet was also a painter, ekphrastic poems were actually conceived as accompaniments to an actual painting (or vice versa). Blake's "The Tyger," "The Clod and the Pebble," and "Holy Thursday," for example, were first printed underneath or alongside Blake's graphic rendering of the poem's subject. What have been called Blake's "composite works" also influenced Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who provided verse equivalents to several of his paintings, the texts often inscribed below the picture or within it. Usually, but not always, the execution of the painting came first, as in "The Girlhood of Mary Virgin." With "The Blessed Damozel," the poem preceded the painting.

In the twentieth century many poets produced ekphrastic poems, and the vast majority of these concern actual, not imaginary works of art. Consider, for example, Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" ; Marianne Moore's "No Swan so Fine" and "Nine Peaches"; Wallace Stevens's "Angel Between Two Paysans"; William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Breughel ; John Berryman's "Hunters in the Snow"; Randall Jarrell's "Knight, Death and the Devil"; W. H. Auden's "The Shield of Achilles," and Elizabeth Bishop's "Large Bad Picture" and "Poem." In recent times there have been a large number of examples, in fact, several anthologies of ekphrastic poems have been assembled, sometimes commissioned by museums whose collections are featured.

Some ekphrastic poems describe photographs, and these may be art photographs or else ordinary snapshots, the latter often depicting members of the poet's family. A disadvantage of using family snapshots is that the original image may not embody sufficient artistry to provide the stuff of interesting commentary; nor is that image available to the reader for comparison with the text. Enormous skill is needed in order to convey visual information of this kind, along with the passions and emotional nuances that pictures from childhood arouse in the author. So there is a risk that only a small part of the authors' feelings will actually be accessible to the reader through the intermediary of words alone. Still, some poets have had success writing this kind of poem, for example, Adrienne Rich in "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" and Greg Williamson's "Double Exposures."

Actually, a poem about an obscure painting is also at a disadvantage. Where the original image is well known, we can compare it to the poet's version of what it contains; and the poet's departures from the original, or inaccurate interpretations of it, are sometimes revealing. Without the original image, though, we are forced to trust the poet's description as being accurate, and we are unable to know where it is not. Meanwhile, the compositional task is much more difficult in such cases since the text of the poem has to convey all the relevant visual information, while still qualifying as poetry. On the other hand, if the subject is, say, Leonardo's Mona Lisa, or any other very famous work of art, there's no need to give a detailed description; the audience already knows what's in the painting.

A disadvantage, though, of using very great works of visual art as a subject for ekphrasis is that the comparison between the original and the poem about it may prove too unfavorable. Readers may wonder why they should bother reading a moderately effective poem when they could instead look at the great painting it was based on. If the poem doesn't contain something more than was already available to the audience, it will strike the reader as superfluous, the secondary product of someone too dependent on the earlier, greater work.

The reader may also wonder why the description wasn't done in prose rather than in lines of poetry. All art historians and critics agree that complete and accurate verbal descriptions of visual art are very hard to achieve, even in prose. When the expectations associated with good poetry are part of the goal as well, we see that writing a good ekphrastic poem is a formidable task indeed. The aim of drafting a text entirely adequate to its source, giving a verbal equivalent to every detail in the subject work, is probably too lofty. A more realistic goal is to give a partial account of the work.

Once the ambition of producing a complete and accurate description is put aside, a poem can provide new aspects for a work of visual art. It can provide a special angle of approach not usually brought to bear on the original. For example, in a banqueting scene, the poem might, instead of describing the revelers, focus on the dogs, cats, and pet birds given free rein in the scene.

More generally, a poem can add the overall resources of verbality, with descriptions developed through surprising metaphors, apt commentary cast in lines with unusual diction and crisp rhythm—perhaps even calling on the techniques of traditional prosody. And then, the poet may devise conversations between figures in the painting or group sculpture and give these the quality of poetry. Finally, the poem may actually treat more than one painting at a time, in a kind of verbal collage or double-exposure.

Perhaps the most effective contemporary poems dealing with visual art are those where the authors include themselves in the poem, recounting the background circumstances that led to a viewing of the painting or sculpture in question; or what memories or associations or emotions it stirs in them; or how they might wish the work to be different from what it is. The center of attention in this kind of poem isn't solely the pre-existing work but instead is dual, sharing the autobiographical focus found in the majority of contemporary lyric poems written in English.

Poems like these unite ekphrasis with the autobiographical tradition, which is equally ancient and probably more important than ekphrasis alone. After all, the autobiographical tradition can cite figures such as Ovid, Dante, Ben Jonson, Donne, George Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Akhmatova, Williams, Crane, Lowell, Roethke, Bishop, Berryman, Larkin, Walcott, Merrill, Adrienne Rich, and Seamus Heaney. Of course you can argue that an ekphrastic poem providing no information at all about the author may still convey autobiographical content indirectly, in the form of "voice," tone, level of diction, and the kind and frequency of judgments made in the course of presentation. In "Archaic Torso of Apollo," Rilke gives us no precise autobiographical facts about himself; nevertheless, we get a strong sense of the author's character and prospects from his presentation of the subject, in particular, when he imagines the torso saying to him, "You must change your life."

Meanwhile, more directly autobiographical ekphrastic poems, like Lowell's "For the Union Dead," Bishop's "Poem," John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," Charles Wright's "Homage to Claude Lorraine," or the present author's "Seeing All the Vermeers," locate the act of viewing visual art in a particular place and time, giving it a personal and perhaps even an historical context. The result is then not merely a verbal "photocopy" of the original painting, sculpture, or photograph, but instead a grounded instance of seeing, shaped by forces outside the artwork. In such poems, description of the original work remains partial, but authors add to it aspects drawn from their own experience—the facts, reflections, and feelings that arise at the confluence of a work of visual art and the life of the poet.