Ekphrastic Poetry: Definition & Examples

Ekphrastic Poetry: Definition & Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at ekphrastic poetry, which is quite simply describing a work of art or something that we find aesthetically pleasing enough to consider art. We'll also analyze a few poetic examples of this literary staple.

Ekphrastic Poetry Defined

Describe your ideal or favorite outfit. Chances are you could continue this description for some length, moving all the way from the shoes you're wearing to the rings on your fingers to the kind of glasses you wear.

Have you ever heard the expression 'A picture's worth a thousand words?' Well, sometimes poets think that a picture or a sculpture or a piece of pottery is worth just that and maybe more. When poets find a piece of visual artwork that truly captures their imagination, they often engage in a literary practice known as ekphrastic poetry, which is poetry that verbally describes a visual work of art.

The term ekphrasis is derived from the combination of two Ancient Greek words: ek, which can mean 'for the sake of,' and phradzein, meaning 'to show, point out, describe.' The recombined definition then yields ekphrasis, or 'a process carried out for the sake of description.' Next, we'll take a closer look at a few examples of ekphrastic poetry to see how metal artistry, a painting and pottery have been vividly described through poetry.

Ekphrastic Poetry Examples

The Shield of Akhilles from Homer's Iliad

Artist rendering of the Shield of Akhilles from the description by Homer

The following passage introduces Homer's ekphrasis of the Shield of Akhilles. This legendary work of art and instrument of war was created by the god of blacksmithing and craftsmanship, and Homer devotes around 130 lines to its full description.

'First of all (Hephaistos) forged a shield that was huge and heavy,
elaborating it about, and threw around it a shining
triple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.'

Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece

A 16th-century painting of the flight of Aeneas from Troy as it burns

This piece of ekphrastic poetry describes Roman lady Lucrece coming across an unnamed painting depicting the fall of Troy during the Trojan War. Shakespeare takes great pains to illustrate the devastation and loss captured in the painting as it is also reflected in Lucrece's own story.

'A thousand lamentable objects there,
In scorn of nature, art gave lifeless life:
Many a dry drop seem'd a weeping tear,
Shed for the slaughter'd husband by the wife:
The red blood reek'd, to show the painter's strife;
And dying eyes gleam'd forth their ashy lights,
Like dying coals burnt out in tedious nights.'

Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'

Drawing by Keats of his inspirational urn

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