How Poems Can Illuminate a Response to Art

Using poetry to describe another work of art can help illuminate the original piece. This type of poetry is called ekphrasis. An ekphrastic poem describes a work of art or occasionally a scene. Everything from urns to shields to paintings are illuminated by this type of poetry.


The word "ekphrasis" usually is translated as "description." According to, though, the word comes from two Greek words: "ek," meaning "out of," and "phrasis," meaning "speech." Indeed, ekphrastic poetry is a form of expression that results from art. Poems have been used to describe art from Homeric times until the present. Key to this poetic form is the use of descriptive, even emotive, language and a narration of what the figures in the work of art are doing or thinking. Ekphrasis has been used to describe imagined works of visual art, but modern usages refer to real works exclusively.

Classical Examples

Homer provides the earliest example of ekphrasis in his long description of Achilles' shield in "The Iliad." Homer goes into great detail of the forging of the shield by the blacksmith god Hephaestus and long passages describing the scenes on the shield. Such detailed scenery on a shield is not strictly possible, so Homer's ekphrastic passage highlights the otherworldly nature of the piece. Virgil uses ekphrasis similarly in "Aeneid" by describing carvings on a temple wall. Aeneas visits this temple, sees the carvings depicting his own feats and understands his legend already is in the making. Virgil's words, then, illustrate Aeneas' response to a work of art.

Modern Examples

Poet W.H. Auden reworks Homer's vision in a poem of his own, "The Shield of Achilles." Auden replaces Homer's grand words with descriptions including barbed wire, bored officials cracking jokes and "a million boots in a line." The response here is clearly different. A well-known example of ekphrastic poetry is John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Here Keats contemplates the nature of the lovers on an urn: they dance and play music yet are frozen. He questions their identity even while illuminating their emotions.


More than one approach is possible in analyzing a poem describing art. One approach is to discuss the evolution of ekphrastic poetry: its grand start in classical times to political commentary in modern poems. Another option is to compare the description in the poem to the original work, analyzing its effectiveness not only in capturing the image but adding to the response. An evaluation of the need for the art form in an age when color images are widely available is another approach to this topic. Lastly, poet-artist William Blake composed poems to illuminate his own works of art. Considering what words add to a piece and vice versa is a valid approach.

About the Author

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.

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