Ekphrasis (ecphrasis)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Ekphrasis (ecphrasis)

Ekphrasis (ecphrasis): The literary, especially poetic, representation of or response to a visual work of art, such as a painting or sculpture. A rhetorical device, ekphrasis may involve description or analysis of the work itself or may focus on the writer’s encounter with and experience of the work. If the work in question is imaginary, the ekphrasis is notional.

Ekphrasis was particularly popular among romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets, but its use dates back at least to classical times, as exemplified by Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in The Iliad (c. 850 B.C.). Common conventions include giving the work of art a “voice,” speaking to the work, using a museum as the setting, and focusing on the artist’s studio.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820); William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” (1928), which represents the Greek myth of the seduction of Leda by Zeus in the guise of a swan as rape; John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1974), describing sixteenth-century Italian artist Il Parmigianino’s use of a convex mirror to paint his own portrait. In his poem “In Santa Maria del Popolo” (1958), poet Thom Gunn described his encounter with Caravaggio’s painting Conversione de San Paolo (The Conversion of St. Paul) (c. 1523—24), asking “what is it you mean / In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?” By contrast, W. H. Auden, responding to Pieter Brueghel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1554—55) — which itself depicts the Greek myth of Icarus, who fashioned a pair of wings with wax and fell to his death in the sea after flying too close to the sun — mused in “Musée des Beaux-Arts” (1938):

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure… .