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Ekphrasis

“Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. A notable example is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the poet John Keats speculates on the identity of the lovers who appear to dance and play music, simultaneously frozen in time and in perpetual motion:

               What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
            What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

            Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
                     Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
            Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
                     Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
            Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
                     Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
                 Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
            Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
                   She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
                         For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

            Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
                       Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
            And, happy melodist, unwearied,
                       For ever piping songs for ever new. . . .

See W. S. DiPiero’s poem guide on Robert Browning for more on ekphrasis. Browse more ekphrastic poems.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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