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Ekphrasis: No, it’s not a Greek Dessert or Exotic Bug Larvae

By Audrey Quinn

Ekphrasis: a literary description of or a commentary on a visual work of art

This definition of ekphrasis may come as a surprise even if you identify as a writer and/or a poet.

When I initially saw the word ekphrasis, my first thought was “What is this? Some kind of dessert? I guess it is similar to the word ‘chrysalis,’ maybe it’s some kind of larvae?” 

But, rest assured, ekphrasis has nothing to do with sweet treats or bugs. It’s a literary device where you study a visual work of art–such as a painting or sculpture–and then create a written work of art based on your observations and associations of the visual work of art. 

Confused? Here are a few famous examples of ekphrasis. By the end of this post, you’ll have an enriched understanding of this lesser-known literary device and be able to try it out for yourself!

Symbolist poetry inspired by Brueghel

One famous ekphrastic poem is called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams. Williams, best known for his symbolist poetry, based this poem on a painting by Pieter Brueghel called “The Fall of Icarus.” 

The painting boasts a moss-green sea with several large ships sailing during what appears to be a beautiful sunny day. In the background is a series of severe white cliffs, overlooking this green sea, and brown and russet hills and paths in the foreground. On these paths, a raven-haired farmer plows a field with a chestnut-colored mare and, beneath him, an older shepherd tends to numerous fluffy white sheep, whose faces are not visible. Off to the lower right, a man in a white robe, possibly a monk, stretches his hand towards the water. 

Interestingly, the only reference to Icarus in “The Fall of Icarus” is an easily overlooked detail to the far lower right of the painting, directly in front of the white-robed man: a boy’s pale leg is jutting out of the deep green sea next to a grandiose ship. 

Williams’ poem is an example of ekphrasis. He wrote it based upon his observations, feelings, and associations towards Brueghel’s painting. It reads:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Williams clearly noted the painter’s choice on how to incorporate Icarus into his painting: unsignificantly/off the coast/there was/a splash quite unnoticed/this was/Icarus drowning. Icarus’s death, his fantastic wings of wax, and his father Daedelus’s grief and horror are all reduced to a single pale limb beating against the emerald waves. 

Williams also remarks on several other features of the painting, such as the farmer and his plough and the colors of the landscape, which are reminiscent of spring-time. All of these details came from the painting to inspire Williams’ poem, and are an example of the literary device ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis in The Illiad

Another incredibly famous and classic example of ekphrasis is Homer’s epic poem, The Illiad

In The Illiad, Homer at one point writes in about Achilles’ shield which, within it, contains images of the sea, the heavens, and the Earth, as well as numerous scenes of human grief and posterity. The shield is a physical thing which Homer describes in vivid detail in written form, making it another example of ekphrasis. 

A poem to the artist

A final famous and poignant example of ekphrasis is by Elizabeth Jennings. Her poem is called “Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits,” and it is addressed to the artist Rembrandt, who painted several famous self-portraits as he grew older. 

His portraits, like the artist himself, age over time. In early paintings, Rembrandt sports long deep brown hair, smooth and luminous skin, and a mischievous grin. In later paintings of himself as a middle-aged man, he paints himself with shorter, curly ash-brown hair, a serious set line in his mouth, and reddening cheeks. In his self-portrait as an older man, Rembrandt has silver hair with a receding hairline, deep-set dark eyes with wrinkles beneath them, and liver spots 

Jennings, in her poem, theorizes how Rembrandt might have felt as he painted these later self-portraits, perhaps feeling “uglier,” but still remaining committed to being the best at his calling, which meant that he had to remain honest with himself. She also writes that there is “still love left,” even as Rembrandt’s face ages in each successive painting, meaning both love for his art and love in a broader sense for people and the world around him. Her poem reads:

You are confronted with yourself. Each year

The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.

You give it all unflinchingly. You stare

Into yourself, beyond. Your brush’s care

Runs with self-knowledge. Here

Is a humility at one with craft.

There is no arrogance. Pride is apart

From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift

The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt

But there is still love left.

Love of the art and others. To the last

Experiment went on. You stared beyond

Your age, the times. You also plucked the past

And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,

And old age can divest,

With truthful changes, us of fear of death.

Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,

The sadness and the joy. To paint’s to breathe,

And all the darknesses are dared. You chose

What each must reckon with. 

This is another example of ekphrasis as a literary device, since Jennings based her poem directly from the artist Rembrandt’s self-portraits. She speculated and ruminated on Rembrandt’s experiences as a human being aging and becoming more aware of his own mortality as his life passed on, and took those ideas and put them into a poem.

Hopefully, these three examples of ekphrasis have alleviated any confusion around the term itself, and dismissed any dessert or bug-related speculations as to what this word means. 

How to create ekphrasis poetry

Now that you know what ekphrasis is, you can try it out for yourself! 

Look at a picture, sculpture, or artwork that speaks to you. 

Write down, or think deeply about, what feelings, thoughts, and associations are conjured up in your mind when you look at this artwork. 

Now, take those feelings, thoughts, and associations, and see if you can create a story, poem, or song from them. Boom! You have just used ekphrasis!