Ekphrasis: Definition and Examples in Rhetoric

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"Ekphrasis" is a rhetorical and poetic figure of speech in which a visual object (often a work of art) is vividly described in words. Adjective: ecphrastic.

Richard Lanham notes that ekphrasis (also spelled ecphrasis) was "one of the exercises of the Progymnasmata, and could deal with persons, events, times, places, etc." (Handlist of Rhetorical Terms). One well-known example of ekphrasis in literature is John Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

Etymology: From the Greek, "speak out" or "proclaim"

Examples and Observations

  • "Ekphrasis, a species of vivid description, has no formal rules and no stable technical definition. Originally a device in oratory, its development as a poetic figure has somewhat confused its taxonomy, but broadly speaking it is one of a spectrum of figures and other devices falling under the rubric of enargeia ('vividness'). The term ekphrasis appears only belatedly in classical rhetorical theory. Discussing representation in his Rhetoric, Aristotle approves the 'enlivening of inanimate things' with vivid description, the 'do[ing of] something to the life' as a kind of imitation, in metaphors which 'set things before the eye.' Quintilian regards vividness as a pragmatic virtue of forensic oratory: '"representation" is more than mere perspicuity, since instead of being merely transparent it somehow shows itself off... in a way that it seems to be actually seen. A speech does not adequately fulfill its purpose... if it goes no further than the ears... without... being... displayed to the mind's eye.'"
    (Claire Preston, "Ekphrasis: Painting in Words." Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008)
  • "Recent critics and theorists have defined ekphrasis as 'the verbal representation of visual representation.' Yet Ruth Webb has noted that the term, despite its classical-sounding name, is 'essentially a modern coinage,' and points out that it is only in recent years that ekphrasis has come to refer to the description of works of sculpture and visual art within literary works. In classical rhetoric, ekphrasis could refer to virtually any extended description..."
    (Richard Meek, Narrating the Visual in Shakespeare. Ashgate Publishing, 2009)
  • Two Poems on Bruegel's Landscape With the Fall of Icarus
    According to Brueghel
    when Icarus fell
    it was spring
    a farmer was ploughing
    his field
    the whole pageantry
    of the year was
    awake tingling
    the edge of the sea
    with itself
    sweating in the sun
    that melted
    the wings' wax
    off the coast
    there was
    a splash quite unnoticed
    this was
    Icarus drowning
    (William Carlos Williams, "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus." Collected Poems: 1939-1962, Volume II. New Directions, 1962)
    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;
    How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood:
    They never forgot
    That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
    Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
    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.
    (W.H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts." Selected Poems)
  • "[W]hile ekphrasis certainly involves a sense of interartistic rivalry, it need not fix writing in a position of authority. Indeed, ekphrasis can just as readily signal a writer's anxiety in the face of a powerful artwork, provide an occasion for a writer to test the capacities of descriptive language, or represent a simple act of homage.
    "Ekphrasis is a self-reflexive exercise in representation—art about art, 'a mimesis of a mimesis' (Burwick 2001)—whose occurrence in Romantic poetry reflects a concern with the powers of writing vis-à-vis visual art."
    (Christopher Rovee, "Ekphrasis." The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature, ed. by Frederick Burwick, Nancy M. Goslee, and Diane L. Hoeveler. Blackwell Publishing, 2012)