Hollander answers:

See also: Two Reviewers: Bloom, Vendler

Ecphrasis (or directly transliterated "ekphrasis")

Ecphrasis, in literary tradition is designated as descriptions of works of art by writers, usually painting, usually by poets. Plato in the Phaedrus, observes that paintings and poems both maintain "a most majestic silence" when cross examined, and "...they seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever." (3) John Hollander acknowledges the theoretical joke implicit in The Gazer's Spirit, Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art, (paintings do not listen, poems question and answer only themselves) and notes that all ekphrastic poems share the common rhetorical predicament of representing in language what is itself representing visually yet something else; a kind of mirroring of mirroring.

Harold Bloom glosses the ecphrastic predicament in his review of Hollander’s book when he observes "Hollander’s poets may seem to bow reverently before the paintings they seek to appropriate, but the gazer;s spirit often reduces even the most awesome painting to so much materia poetic."[Review] But theoretical problem or not, poetry continues to address painting (and other works of art) and Hollander presses on, having himself as a poet been moved to commit ecphrasis and as a critic been interested to explore the modes of rhetorical address underway when poems confront pictures.

"The interpretive agendas and programs of poems confronting extant art work range widely in complexity. They can take a graphic or sculptural representation as a mere particular instance of a conventional sign; on the other hand, they can be acutely responsive to the matter of the medium and its handling,

The mirroring of mirroring : "In earlier iconographies, Truth’s mirror is that of representation; Venus’ mirror is the one in which she regards herself, and from whose image she perhaps derives power. A poem is both of these, but considers the visual image only as itself, Truth’s looking-glass. Perhaps only a painter can know the ways in which a picture is indeed both of these-the mirror of representation and the mirror of empowering self-absorption-as much as the poem is. For the disapproving Socrates, a picture of a bed is unforgivably distant from true Bedness by three removes of mimesis:

Hence three removes. An ecphrasis of the picture would be even more distant from reality. But the power of Art depends upon the power of those degrees of fictiveness: a thrice-removed painting can get at true Bedness better than a bed can and, Art would argue, better even than Plato’s privileged mental faculty which alone can grasp the true form of Bedness."(7)

Ecphrasis as a technical term used by classicists and historians of art to mean a verbal description of a work of art, of a scene as rendered in a work of art, or even of a fictional scene the description of which unacknowledgedly derives from descriptions of scenes. In recent literary theory, considerations of ecphrasis have concerned the ways in which space and time are involved in the various mutual figurations of actuality, text, and picture. Classicists are frequently concerned with the relation between the ecphrasis of a picture and the question of scenic description in fiction generally; of central interest there is the relation between the vividness or liveliness (in Greek, enargeia) of a painting, say, and the rhetorical vividness of the writing.(5) Historians of Renaissance art have been concerned to show how full or partial programs, or elements of iconography detail, frequently derive from prose or even verse ecphrases from antiquity, usually Hellenistic or Roman; these could be actual-describing celebrated works of art since lost-or virtual.

Notional Ecphrasis

Notional ecphrasis-or the description, often elaborately detailed, of purely fictional painting or sculpture that is indeed brought into being by the poetic language itself.

Hollander notes the history of the notional ecphrasis beginning with the aniconic disposition of the Hebrew Bible, citing the earliest examples of notional ecphrasis in the digression of the Shield of Achilles from the Iliad (importantly the ecphrasis here is not what the shield looks like or what images go where on the object but instead how the shield was made, as famously discussed by Gotthold Lessing); citing passages from Virgil where Aeneas encounters the fall of Troy in wall paintings; citing the narrated reactions to representations in Dante as Virgil guides Dante's gaze to carvings of scenes of the angel of the annunciation, David dancing before the arc of the covenant, and Trajan in conversation with a widow in tears at the death of her son; from Chaucer the narrative report of mural paintings in the House of Fame, telling the story of the fall of Troy; and etc. through the 17th century when ecphrastic moments in narrative become a matter for the study of the novel.

In extended fictions, the notional ecphrasis may be a described image that is imaginary. Hollander brings to mind Browning's "The Statue and the Bust," where a portrait in relief is commissioned to perpetuate the face of a fictional lady. In the poem the fictional lady has an actual lover (Ferdinand de Medici) who commissions his actual statue to stand in Florence. Hollander says "The actual statue and the poem's own supplement, the notional bust, watch each other eternally, but of course fictively." (22)

Read further? Read further into this paper?

Send questions or comments to jjacobs1@d.umn.edu . Last modified: 22/12/97