10 Excellent Ekphrastic Poems

From classical poets, Homer and Virgil to contemporary poets like U. A. Fanthorpe and Anne Carson turned on the ekphrastic mode and composed some of the most excellent poems that you’ve ever read!

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Ekphrastic poetry is defined as a form of poetry that is written in response to a work of art, such as paintings, sculptures, etc. On Poem Analuyis, we defined ekphrastic as:

Ekphrastic is a type of poem that explores art. The poet engages with any type of visual art within their writing.

In classical heroic poetry, ekphrasis was used as a rhetorical device in order to provide a vivid description of an imaginary scene. Later, poets adopted this technique to express the impression of visual art on them. Nowadays, a poem written about any work of art is called an ekphrastic. There are a number of poets, both from the past and present, who wrote some exemplary poems using the ekphrasis technique that you can explore below.

Best Ekphrastic Poems


The Shield of Achilles, Iliad, Book 18 by Homer

One of the earliest and, perhaps, best-known examples of traditional ekphrasis can be traced to Homer’s epic Iliad. In Book 18, there are several lines that are only used to depict the shield of Achilles. This is a type of notional ekphrasis, which means a verbal description of an imaginary scene or event. Here are some lines from Book 18, translated by 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope:

Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;

Rich various artifice emblazed the field;

Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;

A silver chain suspends the massy round;

Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,

And godlike labours on the surface rose.

There shone the image of the master-mind:

There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;

The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;

The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;

The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;

And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;

To which, around the axle of the sky,

The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,

Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,

Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.

The speaker spends nearly 150 lines just describing the features of the shield. In Book 8 of The Aeneid, Virgil mimics Homer in his description of the shield of the epic hero Aeneas. He uses nearly 90 lines to describe the shield. W. H. Auden wrote an ekphrastic on Homer’s depiction of Achilles’ shield in his poem The Shield of Achilles.’ Here are a few lines from Auden’s piece:

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,

   No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,

Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,

   Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood

   An unintelligible multitude,

A million eyes, a million boots in line,

Without expression, waiting for a sign.


Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

In this ekphrastic poem, Keats talks about how an ancient Grecian urn strikes the inner chords of his mind, making him think about the figures depicted on it. The speaker makes a number of attempts to engage with the engravings on the urn. He wonders what the figures are doing, what they represent, and what they mean:

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape

    Of deities or mortals, or of both,

               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

    What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Explore the best-loved poems of Keats or read more of John Keats’s poems.

Fra Lippo Lippi by Robert Browning

Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is another wonderful ekphrastic piece. This poem is about the difficult, tumultuous, and scandalous life of painter Fra Lippo Lippi. Browning uses ekphrasis in order to describe a number of his paintings. Here are a few lines in which the painter-speaker describes his fresco:

I painted a Saint Laurence six months since

At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:

“How looks my painting, now the scaffold’s down?”

I ask a brother: “Hugely,” he returns—

“Already not one phiz of your three slaves

Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,

But’s scratched and prodded to our heart’s content,

The pious people have so eased their own

With coming to say prayers there in a rage:

We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.

Expect another job this time next year,

For pity and religion grow i’ the crowd—

Your painting serves its purpose!” Hang the fools!

Read more Robert Browning poems.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams

This poem is about a painting by Pieter Brueghel called “The Fall of Icarus.” Icarus, a symbol of transgression or unchecked ambition, was the son of master craftsman Daedalus. He made his son wings of wax and warned him not to fly too close to the sun. The rejection of his father’s advice led him to his downfall. The final scene of Icarus’ story is depicted in Brueghel’s painting. Williams wrote these lines in reaction to the piece:

According to Brueghel

when Icarus fell

it was spring

(…)

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning

Explore more poems by William Carlos Williams.

W. H. Auden wrote Musee des Beaux Artsabout the same painting. Here are a few lines from his piece:

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.

Explore the best-known poems of W. H. Auden or read more of Auden’s poetry.

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton

Here’s another poem that was written in direct response to a piece of painting. Like the previous example, this piece also uses the same technique in order to express one speaker’s impression after watching Van Gogh’s masterpiece “The Starry Night.” The speaker of this confessional poem vividly explores the features of the painting and how it makes her think of oblivion:

The town does not exist

except where one black-haired tree slips

up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

(…)

Oh starry starry night! This is how   

I want to die:

Read more Anne Sexton poems.

Not My Best Side by U. A. Fanthrope

Contemporary English poet U. A. Fanthorpe wrote ‘Not My Best Side’ in response to a medieval painting by Paolo Uccello entitled “Saint George and the Dragon.” This humorous piece begins from the perspective of the dragon, one of the characters in the painting:

Not my best side, I’m afraid.

The artist didn’t give me a chance to

Pose properly, and as you can see,

Poor chap, he had this obsession with

Triangles, so he left off two of my

Feet.

Explore more poems by U. A. Fanthorpe.

The Man With the Hoe by Edwin Markham

Inspired by Jean-Françoid Millet’s painting “Man with a Hoe,” Edwin Markham wrote this ekphrastic poem that explores the themes of social justice and the suffering of the working class. The poem was first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1899 and later appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines. Through the following lines, Markham describes the spiritual exhaustion of the central figure in the painting:

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans

Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,

The emptiness of ages in his face,

And on his back the burden of the world.

Who made him dead to rapture and despair,

A thing that grieves not and that never hopes.


Winter Landscape by John Berryman

One of the famous paintings by Pieter Brueghel, “Hunters in the Snow,” inspired John Berryman to write this piece. It was also the inspiration behind William Carlos Williams’s poem The Hunter in the Snow.’ Berryman’s poem begins with a direct reference to the “three men” depicted in the painting and the last few lines contain what the speaker thinks about them:

The three men coming down the winter hill

In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds

At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,

Past the five figures at the burning straw,

Returning cold and silent to their town,

(…)

Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds

At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,

Thence to return as now we see them and

Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill

Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies.

Explore more John Berryman poetry.

Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo’ is an example of notional ekphrasis which means a description of an imagined scene or thing. In this sonnet, Rilke describes the torso of Apollo, the god of poetry. Critics could not clearly state whether Rilke is talking about a sculpture of Apollo’s torso or an actual torso of a young man. This poem taps on the theme of existence. The last lines of this piece are the most important ones, especially the last sentence, “You must change your life.”

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

(…)

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Check out some other poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.

On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art by Frank O’Hara

This poem is an ekphrasis of the 1953 painting by Larry Rivers, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” In this piece, O’Hara addresses George Washington depicted in the painting, and implores him:

Dear father of our country, so alive

you must have lied incessantly to be

immediate, here are your bones crossed

(…)

Don’t shoot until, the white of freedom glinting

on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

Read more Frank O’Hara poems.

FAQs

What are the famous ekphrastic poems of all time?

Some of the famous ekphrastic poems, both from the past and present, include Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ Auden’s The Shield of Achilles and Musee des Beaux Arts,’ and Edwin Markham’s The Man With the Hoe.’

What is an ekphrastic poem?

The term ekphrastic comes from the Greek rhetorical device ekphrasis which was used to “describe” a visual scene, either imaginary or real. Later, the term is applied to the poems which are written in response to visual art. For instance, Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts artistically describes the painting of Pieter Brueghel, “The Fall of Icarus.” Hence, it is an example of an ekphrastic poem.

What makes a good ekphrastic poem?

A good ekphrastic piece is marked by its directness, vivid imagery, and how the poet deals with a work of art. The narrative is built upon a writer’s interpretation and impression of a piece of visual art, such as a painting or sculpture.

Why is ekphrasis important?

Ekphrasis or the mode of describing the visual in verbal terms is important as it helps the audience notice the important details from a piece of visual art. An ekphrastic piece lets us know the nuances of a piece of art and the best ways to interpret it.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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