In ancient Greece ekphrasis was understood more broadly than in the contemporary world, indicating a complex genealogy for this term that encompasses so much fine poetry as well as many other forms of writing. For the ancients, the best ekphrastic poetry was prized because it presented an often dramatic picture in words, enabling the reader to ‘see’ and respond immediately to what was being described or evoked. Ekphrastic poetry provided a way of allowing readers or listeners to appreciate the imagistic and sometimes narrative content of poetry almost as if they might be looking at the object or objects being written about.
Ekphrasis was a rhetorical tool, enabling the evocation of an object in language in such a way as to enable readers to respond emotionally, even viscerally to it. However, ekphrastic works were not necessarily highly descriptive or detailed. They were considered successful – much as imagistic poetry is today – when they gave the reader sufficient and apposite details to enable them to imagine a whole scene. Words were, in this way, understood to be transportive in their ability to activate the visual imagination. Ruth Webb comments that:
the emphasis given in the ancient definitions of ekphrasis to effect, over and above any formal or referential characteristics, is striking: an ekphrasis can be of any length, of any subject matter … using any verbal techniques, as long as it ‘brings its subject before the eyes’ or, as one of the ancient authors says, ‘makes listeners into spectators’. (2009: 8)
Although some ancient ekphrastic works are relatively brief, one of the most widely referenced ancient examples of ekphrasis is very detailed. It is the description of Achilles’ shield in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, including Hephaestus’s making of the shield, part of which reads:
And on it he made a herd of straight-horned cattle: the cattle were fashioned of gold and tin, and with lowing hurried out from stable to pasture beside the sounding river, beside the waving reed. And golden were the herdsmen who walked beside the cattle, four in number, and nine dogs swift of foot followed after them. But two terrible lions among the foremost cattle were holding a loud-lowing bull, and he, bellowing mightily, was being dragged by them, while after him pursued the dogs and young men. The lions had torn the hide of the great bull, and were devouring the inner parts and the black blood. (1998: Book XVIII: 478-608)
This brilliant piece of ekphrasis delivers complex descriptive and powerful narrative tropes. Like much ekphrastic writing, it makes use of literary techniques to narrate – and thus transform into notional action – the picture it references. In inscribing in language a still image, it transforms the ‘seen’ into a second and reactivated form of seeing, reinterpreting what it evokes in the act of rendering it in words.
Ekphrasis’s combination of tropes of seeing (or seeing again) and narrative has confounded some scholars who have interpreted it as embodying a tension between image and word – almost as if these strands of ekphrastic writing are in a struggle for precedence. And, more generally, ekphrasis is seen by some commentators as a form that contains its own contradictions:
Ekphrasis … has a Janus face: as a form of mimesis, it stages a paradoxical performance, promising to give voice to the allegedly silent image even while attempting to overcome the power of the image by transforming and inscribing it. (Wagner 1996: 13)
Ekphrasis is certainly very often a complex form of writing that tends to problematise the question of how art represents and ‘perceives’ things. It also emphasises, more directly than any other literary form, the perennial connection between poetry and the visual arts – a connection so powerful that in the minds of some ancient writers, poetry and painting were different expressions of the same creative impulse.
Certainly, both poetry and painting are able to give imagistic representations of the world and of experience, and convey aspects of narrative in ways that may be more similar than they first appear. The narratives of visual art – such as in a painting – are fixed, but they often imply a great deal of movement; and poetry’s restless narratives often suggest considerable stasis, as if time itself is held in the amber of its words. Both painting and poetry enable the receiver of the work to view things newly and, as it were, through a fresh lens.