What is Ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis is an encounter between a visual work of art and a written representation. An ekphrastic poem is inspired by a painting, a sculpture or any visual work of art. The ekphrastic poem may add new meanings to the work of art by describing it through language. W. H Auden and Williams Carlos Williams wrote ekphrastic poems inspired by Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus. Both poets focus on the insignificance of Icarus’ fall for those who continued with their usual daily tasks. Auden emphasizes that painters like Brueghel or old masters, as he refers to the painter, understood about suffering. He describes the painting as a moment of pain and suffering of someone who ends up alone while life goes on. Icarus refused to face his destiny and by forgetting that his wings were fragile and made of wax, for an instant he dared to fly closer to the sun. Thus as his white legs disappear on the green water, a delicate ship passes by. Williams Carlos Williams adds the season to his poem. For him, Icarus’s fall happened during the Spring. In Spring, people are happier after a long and cold winter. Both poets describe how the fall of Icarus goes unnoticed for those who perform their daily tasks. However, Mary Bishop’s ekphrastic poem adds that Icarus found in the deep ocean, other dreamers like him. For her, Icarus was not the first one to fall, but life produced other people who had the same destiny as Icarus. While life continues, corpses of many dreamers lie in the ocean.

Musee des Beaux-Arts (W. H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not especially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
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.


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (William Carlos Williams)

According to Brueghel

when Icarus fell

it was spring

a farmer was ploughing

his field

the whole pageantry

of the year was

awake tingling


the edge of the sea


with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted

the wings’ wax


off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning

Brueghel’s Icarus (Mary Bishop)

Heading to the city,

White buildings he saw

But blinded by the sun,

His wings he lost.

In a village he fell;

Villagers did not care

For what happened to Icarus.

His destiny meant nothing as

Life continued, the traveler passed by,

The plowman kept his working,

The fisherman continued his daily catch.

His wings,

Other men borrowed

To fly away to the white city

He never saw

But in the deep ocean,

Icarus saw other corpses

Of dreamers like him.

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