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

Claire Preston: 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.'

Richard Meek: 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...

Christopher Rovee: [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.