Ekphrasis: Poetry & Visual Art
If we were to ask you to recall a poem that revolves around a work of art, which one comes to your mind right away? For us, it’s the iconic “Musée des Beaux-Arts” by W. H. Auden, aptly named after the Royal Museum of Arts in Brussels. It’s mainly known for its use of a detailed description of the famous Brueghel’s painting and turning the said visual art into a literary device. This technique is called “ekphrasis.”
Beginning with a pithy adage on suffering, it extrapolates to the provocative generalization of the inevitable fate of human lives. Here’s how the poem begins:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;”
The first stanza then goes on to describe the everyday happenings, as in “children … skating on a pond,” “the dogs [going] on with their doggy life,” a “torturer’s horse [scratching] its innocent behind on a tree.” This incipit, in fact, sets up the mood and atmosphere, a room for shock-effect later.
Only in the second stanza does the poem evoke ekphrasis by mentioning a particular painting, i.e., Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, depicting how at times even the death of a great mythical figure might go unnoticed.
“In Breughel’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; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
Like a camera zooming in/out, the lines pick out some salient details and end with an unnoticed death of a “boy falling out of the sky” while life for everyone else goes calmly on. Even when Icarus dies, screaming, his screams are not important to the ploughman—the life of the ordinary goes on despite the great events of the world.
To quote Professor Hugh Haughton of the University of York, “The poem is about seeing and not seeing, about the relationship between everyday life and the sacred, momentous, and mythical, and about how hard it is to be aware of the larger context of anything significant.”
Another poem that chronicles Breughel’s painting is William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which is known for using the painting as an extended metaphor. It’s interesting to see how the salient features of the painting are strewn into a finer work of art.
Well, those are the two famous poems with visual art as poetic devices! What other similar poems have you read?
Poetry by Editorial Team
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Written on 2021-04-19 at 00:00
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