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Ekphrastic Poetry

The Verbal Representation of Visual Art

2 minutes

 

There is a kind of poetry, perhaps less well-known than others, based on the link between literature and art, words and images. It is called Ekphrastic poetry, named after the Greek word ekphrasis, meaning “to speak out”. It consists of the verbal description of a work of art, which can be either real or fictional.
For this reason, its main purpose is to make the reader picture and visualise the work of art through the use of words. This poetry has its roots in Ancient Greece but, in the following centuries, many poets composed Ekphrastic lines, from Shakespeare to Auden.

 

Homer

The first example of Ekphrastic poetry is in the Iliad, Book 18. It is the famous passage known as “The Shield of Achilles”, written by Homer.
Achilles is fighting against Hector. He loses his armour, and his mother Thetis asks the God Hephestus to create a shield for him to keep fighting. Homer turns the pictures engraved on the shield into stories.
Since the verbal representation allows Homer to talk about movement and sound, there is an implicit comparison between visual and verbal descriptions. The work of art described is not an actual object, but it becomes real in the reader’s imagination.

 

Shakespeare

Shakespeare wrote a piece of Ekphrastic poetry in The Rape of Lucrece, a narrative poem published in 1594.
The story is about Lucrece, the woman who was raped by Tarquin, according to historians Ovid and Livy. In the poem, her only source of solace is a painting of the fall of Troy. The woman herself is like the work of art, like that fortress under attack. As far as the composition is concerned, Shakespeare describes the scenes in a random order, so as a viewer might see them without following a chronological order.

 

Sosibios vase - UberAura

Drawing by Keats of the Sosibios vase

John Keats

In 1819, John Keats wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn. It underlines a shift between the ancient Ekphrasis and the modern one. Like Homer, Keats mixed visible and invisible elements while describing the urn. Unlike his predecessor, Keats gives emphasis to his own experience of viewing the vase. In fact, scholars state that this urn is the result of different pieces of urns that he might have seen in the British Museum in London.

 

William Auden

There is an essential difference between ancient and modern Ekphrasis. In modern Ekphrasis, the object described is a real work of art. This happens in Musée des Beaux Arts, composed by William Auden in 1938. It is the verbal representation of a painting called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Breughel, contained in the museum of Brussels. After a stanza about the Old Masters, the greatest painters of all times, Auden focuses his attention on Landscape, describing a man falling from the sky.

 

Bruegel, Pieter the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (oil on canvas) 73.5x112 cm - courtesy of Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Bruegel, Pieter the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (oil on canvas) 73.5×112 cm – courtesy of Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin published An Arundel Tomb in 1964. It is an Ekphrastic poem because, as the title suggests, it was inspired by a tomb found in Chichester Cathedral. It describes the tomb of the 10th Earl of Arundel and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster. The poem says “Side by side, their faces blurred”: love will survive through time.

 

Arundel tomb. Photo by Paul Dykes via Flickr

 

As Horace used to say, ut pictura poesis: “As is painting, so is poetry.”

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