ekphrasis

A famous ekphrasis occurs in Book 1.450-95 of The Aeneid – see the Ruden translation below. The verbal depiction of Dido’s murals is one of many such moments of narrative paintings of physical objects in the poem. Michael Putnam explores “Dido’s Murals and Virgilian Ekphrasis,” later part of his book Virgil’s Epic DesignsAsk yourself: why is it there? what purpose does this embedded object serve?

“Painting is silent poetry; and poetry is painting with the gift of speech” (Simonides of Ceos, according to Plutarch)

“The Oxford Classical Dictionary defines ekphrasis as “the rhetorical description of a work of art.” The prototype of all ekphrastic poetry is Homer’s depiction of the shield that Hephaestus is making for Achilles in The Iliad. This description, which takes up 130 lines of Greek verse, is a “notional ekphrasis,” the representation of an imaginary work of art.”  — Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary

“Ekphrasis during the Greek period included descriptions of such battle implements, as well as fine clothing, household items of superior craftsmanship (urns, cups, baskets), and exceptionally splendid buildings.” – poets.org

“An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” – Poetry Foundation

“Ekphrasis has taken on such specialized meanings over the ages that the only way to pin down even a cursory understanding of the word requires knowledge both ancient and modern. . . . [in the ancient world,] Ekphrasis was generally understood as a skilled way of describing art and other aesthetic objects after it was learned as a tool of rhetoric. Using the rhetoric successfully was a means of demonstrating prowess, as a scholar and writer and eventually ekphrasis became an art that described art.” — The University of Chicago, Theories of Media

“The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.  In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer.  For most readers of famous Greek and Latin texts, it did not matter whether the subject was actual or imagined.  The texts were studied to form habits of thinking and writing, not as art historical evidence.” — Writing About Art

Here a strange sight relived Aeneas’ fear
For the first time, and lured him into hope
Of better things to follow all his torments.
While waiting for the queen and looking over
The whole huge temple, marveling at the wealth
It showed, the work, the varied artistry,
He saw Troy’s battles painted in their sequence—
A worldwide story now: the sons of Atreus,
And Priam, and Achilles, cruel to both.
He halted, weeping: “What land isn’t full
Of what we suffered in that war, Achates?
There’s Priam! Even here is praise for valor,
And tears of pity for a mortal world.
Don’t be afraid. Somehow our fame will save us.”
With steady sobbing and a tear-soaked face,
He fed his heart on shallow images.
He saw men fight around the citadel—
Trojan troops routing Greeks, crested Achilles
Driving his chariot at the Trojans’ backs.
He wept to recognize, close by, the white tents
Of Rhesus: savage Diomedes stormed
And massacred the camp on its first night,
And seized the ardent horses there before
They tasted Trojan grass or drank the Xanthus.
Here Troilus, wretched boy who’d lost his armor,
And no match for Achilles, sprawled behind
His empty chariot and its panicked horses—
Holding the reins. His neck and long hair skidded
Over the ground. His spear point scored the dust.
The Trojan women, hair unbound, went begging
To the temple of implacable Athena.
They took a robe for her and beat their breasts.
She would not raise her eyes and look at them.
Three times Achilles dragged the corpse of Hector
Around Troy’s walls, then traded it for gold.
Aeneas gave a soulful groan to see
His comrade’s armor, chariot, and body,
And Priam stretching out defenseless hands.
He saw himself among Greek chieftains, fighting;
He saw black Memnon and the ranks of Dawn.
Penthesilea, leader of the Amazons
With their crescent shields, was storming through the throng,
Her gold belt tied beneath her naked breast—
This virgin warrior dared to fight with men.
Dardanian Aeneas gazed in wonder,
Transfixed and mesmerized—

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Virgil’s Ekphrastic Designs (Yale, 1998)

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