Ekphrastic Poetry

Ekphrastic poetry — poems that are based on another form of art, most often paintings, but also including such art forms as sculpture, musical composition, etc.

Derived from the ancient Greeks, Ekphrastic poetry began when students learned to write poetry by focusing on the architecture and art in museums or grand public places. The form has interested poets of the past and has made a comeback in the last decade.

Ekphrasis usually includes, but is not limited to, the use of enargia. This term comes from classical rhetoric. It means to make an object appear lively before the reader’s eye. This usually happens through careful recreation of the visual artifact through verbal means, such as detailed description, use of sensory information, imagery, etc. In other words, ekphrasis normally attempts to visually reproduce the art object (i.e. painting) for the reader so the reader can experience the same effect or reaction as the poet. This is sometimes called “painterly” poetry.

Importantly, Ekphrastic poetry is more than mere textual description or verbal interpretation of visual art. Making an object (painting or other work of art) lively before the reader’s eye involves, in the best Ekphrastic poems, an emotional and perhaps even spiritual response to the work of art – achieved through written language.

Through the centuries of literary history, such poets as John Keats, in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (ceramic art rather than painting), have experimented with Ekphrastic poetry. Robert Browning, in his poems “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto,” created dramatic monologues in which painters muse to themselves about their paintings. Other poets who have worked with Ekphrastic poetry include:

William Carlos Williams – “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”
Maria Rainer Rilke – “Archaic Torso of Apollo”
Percy Bysshe Shelley – “On the Meduse of Leonardo da Vinci”
Frank O’Hara – “Why I am Not a Painter”
John Ashbury – “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Take a look at these poems and their sources of inspiration!

One of the most famous Ekphrastic poems is W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which was based on Breughel’s “Fall of Icarus" (shown below).




  1. Hi Adele, here is an Ekphrastic poem based on one of my favourite paintings -

    "Doorway in the Fürstenschule Meissen", by Caspar David Friedrich.

    ~ ~ ~


    I do not know the life of the clouds on the blueness outside or
    within myself the bright wedding of heartbeat and breath or the
    next unpredicted moment that leaves me as nameless as a sudden
    volcanic eruption in the quiet of a sunlit doorway.


    She is preparing her wings and unlike Icarus
    knows that it is rude to stare at the sun.
    "I shall not fall victim to overconfidence
    and drift out to sea and be drowned".

    ~ ~ ~

  3. this kind of poetry is doubly inspiring! Mixing various forms of art very satisfying for both poet and readers

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Carol! I agree with you wholeheartedly!