Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
There is a special term to describe literary depictions of visual works of art: ekphrasis. Poems about pictures or paintings are, then, ekphrastic poems. But what are the greatest ekphrastic poems in English literature? Here are ten of the very best examples of ekphrasis from the last couple of centuries.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery’.
It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,
Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death …
Although the title of this poem has now been rendered inaccurate (like another painting that is mentioned in this list, the Medusa, we know now, wasn’t actually painted by Leonardo da Vinci), the poem itself is a powerful Romantic response to a Renaissance artwork, capturing ‘all the beauty and the terror there – / A woman’s countenance, with serpent locks, / Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.’
Robert Browning, ‘My Last Duchess’.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance …
In this, one of Browning’s most famous dramatic monologues, the Duke of Ferrara speaks to someone about the portrait of his late wife, his ‘last duchess’, hanging on the wall. As the Duke talks, he reveals, through discussing the painting, his own narcissism and the way he was overly protective of his beautiful wife. Did he have her killed, or locked away in a convent? Browning said as much himself. This poem does what Browning’s dramatic monologues do best: it invites us into the confidence of a speaker whose conversation reveals more about their personality and actions than they realise. We should feel thoroughly uncomfortable when we finish reading the poem for the first time, because we have just heard a man confessing to the murder of his wife – and, perhaps, other wives – without actually confessing. We have analysed this classic poem here.
Walter de la Mare, ‘Brueghel’s Winter’. This is the first of four poems on this list inspired by a Brueghel painting (although when we get to the other two poems below, we’ll see that there’s some doubt surrounding the attribution of the other Brueghel painting!). Brueghel’s winter scenes are instantly recognisable, and Walter de la Mare captures the cold and crisp snow against the ‘skies ice-green’ very effectively in this poem.
William Carlos Williams, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. There are two celebrated twentieth-century poems about ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, a painting (pictured right) long thought to be by Brueghel the Elder (though in fact it may not have been by him at all). The more famous of the two poems is below, but this poem by the American modernist William Carlos Williams also emphasises the fact that Icarus’ fall into the sea goes unnoticed by those who are nearby to witness the event.
W. H. Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. One of the most famous ekphrastic poems in the English language, this poem was written in 1938, shortly before Auden left England for the United States. Taking the theme of suffering in paintings by the ‘Old Masters’ as its theme, the poem homes in on a particular painting – the same one supposedly by Brueghel which Williams also wrote about above – depicting the fall of Icarus and the indifference of those who witnessed it.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’. As much a poem about ageing as it is an ekphrastic poem, ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’ addresses the Dutch master himself, engaging with the series of self-portraits Rembrandt completed and how they chart the artist’s slowly sagging skin and growing self-knowledge (and knowledge of death).
May Swenson, ‘The Tall Figures of Giacometti’. A response to the works of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), this poem adopts a different approach from the Jennings poem above, giving a voice to the sculptures themselves with their air of ‘petrified sainthood’.
John Berryman, ‘Winter Landscape’. Yet another poem on this list inspired by a Brueghel painting, this time ‘Hunters in the Snow’, one of the Dutch Master’s most famous winter landscapes. The twentieth-century American confessional poet John Berryman chooses to focus on three figures within the larger landscape, reflecting on how they have been frozen in time and preserved for posterity by the artist, long after they and all of their friends have passed away.
Anne Sexton, ‘The Starry Night’. As the title of this ekphrastic poem suggests, it was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Starry Night, but also by a quotation from van Gogh’s letters that whenever he feels low he goes out and paints the stars. A beautiful poem by a troubled poet responding to the work of another tortured soul.
U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘Not My Best Side’. Inspired by Paolo Uccello’s painting St. George and the Dragon, this witty poem sees the subjects of the poem (St George himself, the dragon, and the girl being rescued from the dragon) responding to the artist, criticising his failure to capture their ‘best side’. A tongue-in-cheek tour de force, and a fine poem to conclude our pick of ekphrastic poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.