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Ekphrasis and Representation

Author(s): James A. W. Heffernan


Source: New Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 2, Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre (Spring, 1991), pp.
297-316
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/469040
Accessed: 11-11-2015 20:36 UTC
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Ekphrasis and Representation*


James A. W. Heffernan
N THE AVIARY of contemporarycriticaldiscourse, ekphrasis
is an
old and yet surprisinglyunfamiliarbird. The literaryrepresentation of visual art is at least as old as Homer, who in the
eighteenthbook of the Iliad describes at length the scenes depicted
on the shield of Achilles. According to the OxfordClassicalDictionary,
to denote this kind of descriptiondates
the use of the word ekphrasis
from about the third century A.D., and the OED tells us that by
1715 the word had entered the English language.' Now it has
entered the world of academic conferences. In November 1986, it
was the topic of the Tenth InternationalColloquium on Poetics at
Columbia University,and just a few months later, it was the topic
of a session at the first International Conference on Word and
Image in Amsterdam. Nevertheless,this ancient term is still struggling for modern recognition. The PrincteonEncyclopediaof Poetry
and Poetics,for instance,offersarticleson the eclogue and the elegy,
but nothingon ekphrasiseven in the enlarged edition of 1974. And
while ekphrasishas finallyfound its way into the subject headings
covered by the MLA International
only six items have
Bibliography,
1983.
under
this
since
appeared
heading
This does not mean, of course, that scarcely anyone is writing
about the literaryrepresentationof visual art; it simplymeans that
scarcely anyone is using the word ekphrasisto do so-even in the
discussionof such paradigmaticallyekphrasticpoems as Keats's "Ode
on a Grecian Urn." Thirtyyears ago, shortlyafter Earl Wasserman
published The Finer Tone,Leo Spitzer took him to task for writing
fiftypages on the ode withoutever identifyingit as an example of
ekphrasis, and a dozen years later Murray Krieger saluted Spitzer
for having "profitablytaught us" to see the ode in this way.2But
Spitzer's lesson has not been very well learned. Helen Vendler's
*My thanks to Stuart Curran and George T. Wright,who made helpful suggestions
on an earlier version of this essay, and also to Michael Riffaterre,who invited me
to deliver the original version of it at the Columbia colloquium mentioned in the
opening paragraph.
New Literary
History,1991, 22: 297-316

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thirty-six-pagecommentaryon Keats's poem in her book on his


odes makes no mention of ekphrasis, and the same is true of an
otherwise thoroughgoingessay on Shelley's "Ozymandias" that apMost surprising
peared a few years ago in Studiesin Romanticism.3
of all, perhaps, the word ekphrasis
can scarcelybe found in a special
issue of Wordand Image that was wholly devoted to the topic of
poems on pictures.4
All right,it may be asked, so what? Why should the fate of a
word disturb us? If criticslike Helen Vendler can writesplendidly
illuminatingpages on the poetic treatmentof visual art without
using the word ekphrasis,
why do we need it at all? Why not leave
it with the ancient Greek rhetoricianswho firstgave it to us? My
answer to these questions is thatekphrasis
designatesa literarymode,
and it is difficultif not impossible to talk about a literarymode
unless we can agree on what to name it.5I use ekphrasis
as the name
of a mode that I want to define and surveybefore consideringtwo
remarkable specimens of it in detail. As a prelude to specificexplications,I want to formulatea definitionof ekphrasis itself,ormore presumptuously--tosketchout a comprehensivetheoryof it.
In the past twentyyears, the single most influentialattempt to
articulatea theoryof ekphrasis is Murray Krieger's essay of 1967,
"Ekphrasisand the Still Movement of Poetry;or, LaokodnRevisited."6
Krieger's essay might also have been called Joseph Frank revisited
or W. J. T. Mitchell anticipated,for in the face of Lessing what it
seeks to demonstrateis the "generic spatialityof literaryform."' To
this end, Krieger elevates ekphrasis from a particular kind of literature to a literaryprinciple. The plastic, spatial object of poetic
imitation,he says, symbolizes "the frozen, stilled world of plastic
relationshipswhich must be superimposed upon literature'sturning
world to 'still' it" (5). Almost inevitably,Keats's "Ode on a Grecian
Urn" serves as Krieger's prime example, but he also findsekphrasis
in ratherdifferentpoems, such as in Marvell's"Coy Mistress,"where
the ball, he says,is a "physical,spatial . . . emblem of [the speaker's]
masteryover time" (20). In Krieger'sessay, then,ekphrasisbecomes
"a general principle of poetics, asserted by every poem in the
assertion of its integrity"(22).
Krieger's theory of ekphrasis seems to give this moribund term
a new lease on life, but actually Krieger stretchesekphrasis to the
breaking point: to the point where it no longer serves to contain
any particular kind of literatureand merelybecomes a new name
for formalism.8So it has appeared, in any case, to criticsof Heideggerian persuasion, to those who believe thatonly a hermeneutics
of contingent historicityand existential temporalitycan explain
literatureto us. In the eyes of such critics,as Michael Davidson has

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recentlyobserved, Krieger's theoryof ekphrasis would hermetically


seal literature within the well-wroughturn of pure, self-enclosed
spatiality,where the ashes of new criticismnow repose (ashes still
glowing, I should probably add).' So Krieger's ekphrasticprinciple
has been shaken. According to Davidson, it has been undermined
even by certainkinds of poems about paintings-specificallyby what
Davidson calls "the contemporarypainterlypoem." This Davidson
contrasts with what he calls the "classical painter poem," a poem
"about" a painting or work of sculpture which imitates the selfsufficiencyof the object. "A poem 'about' a painting," Davidson
writes, "is not the same as what I am calling a 'painterly poem,'
which activates strategiesof composition equivalent to but not dependent on the painting. Instead of pausing at a reflectivedistance
from the work of art, the poet reads the painting as a text,rather
than as a static object, or else reads the larger painterlyaesthetic
generated by the painting" (72).
Davidson's formulationhelps him to explain such postmodern
poems as John Ashbery's"Self-Portraitin a Convex Mirror,"which
is based on Parmigianino's painting of the same name but which
and authentic selfquestions the ideas of stability,self-sufficiency,
representationthat Parmagianino's work ostensiblytries to convey.
Yet Davidson hardly formulatesa new theoryof ekphrasis. Having
thrown out Krieger's ekphrastic principle and replaced it with a
diachronicpolaritybetween"classical"and "contemporary,"he leaves
us withno coherentsense of the synchronicmode thatmightcontain
themboth,as wellas withan oversimplifiedviewof classicalekphrasis,
which often treatsthe work of art as considerablymorethan a static
object. In Homer's account of the scenes depicted on the shield of
Achilles, for instance, many of the scenes turn into narratives.
The weaknesses of these two theories of ekphrasis--the one too
broad, the other too polarized-help us to see what we need. If
ekphrasis is to be defined as a mode, the definitionmust be sharp
enough to identifya certain kind of literatureand yet also elastic
enough to reach from classicism to postmodernism,from Homer
to Ashbery. What I propose is a definition simple in form but
of
complex in its implications: ekphrasisis the verbal representation
graphicrepresentation.
This definitionexcludes a good deal of what some criticswould
have ekphrasis
include-namely literatureabout texts.'oIt also allows
us to distinguishekphrasisfromtwootherwaysof minglingliterature
and the visual arts--pictorialismand iconicity.What distinguishes
those two things from ekphrasis is that each one aims primarilyto
represent natural objects and artifactsrather than works of representational art. Of course pictorialism and iconicity may each

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remindus of graphic representation.Pictorialismgenerates in language effectssimilarto those created by pictures,so thatin Spenser's
Faerie Queene,for instance,John M. Bender has found instancesof
focusing, framing, and scanning." But in such cases Spenser is
representingthe world withtheaid of pictorialtechniques; he is not
representingpictures themselves.The distinctionholds even when
a pictorial poem can be linked to the styleof a particularpainter.
We know, for example, that the austere clarityof William Carlos
Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" owes something to the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and to the precisioniststyle of Charles
Sheeler, the American photographer-painterwhom Williams met
shortlybefore he wrote the poem.12 But Williams'spoem makes no
referenceto Sheeler or Stieglitzand does not representany one of
their pictures; instead, it uses the verbal equivalent of pictorial
precision in order to represent a set of objects.
Iconicityis more complicatedthan pictorialismbecause it embraces
sounds and sets of relationsas well as visual properties.'3But visual
iconicity,which is what concerns me here, is a visible resemblance
between the arrangement of words or letterson a page and what
theysignify,as in Herbert's "Easter Wings." Like pictorialism,visual
iconicityusually entails an implicitreference to graphic representation. The wavy shape of an iconicallyprinted line about a stream,
for instance,will look much more like Hogarth's line of beauty than
like any wave one mightactuallysee froma shore.14 But once again,
iconic literaturedoes not aim to represent
pictures;it apes the shapes
of pictures in order to represent natural objects.
These three terms-ekphrasis,pictorialism,
and iconicity--arenot
mutuallyexclusive. An ekphrasticpoem can use pictorialtechniques
to representa pictureand can be printedin a shape whichresembles
the paintingthat it verballyrepresents.'15But ekphrasisdiffersfrom
both iconicityand pictorialismbecause it explicitlyrepresents representation itself. What ekphrasis represents in words, therefore,
must itselfbe representational.
The Brooklyn Bridge may be considered a work of art and construed as a symbolof many things,but
since it was not created to representanything,a poem such as Hart
Crane's The Bridgeis no more ekphrasticthan Williams's"The Red
Wheelbarrow."'6

When we understand that ekphrasis uses one medium of representation to represent another, we can see at once what makes
ekphrasis a distinguishablemode and what binds together all ekphrastic literaturefrom Homer to John Ashbery.Comparing such
disparate phenomena as classic and postmodern ekphrasis, recent
criticstend to see only differencesbetween the two. While classic
ekphrasis,theysay, salutes the skillof the artistand the miraculous

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verisimilitudeof the forms he creates, postmodern ekphrasis undermines the concept of verisimilitudeitself.Thus Ashbery's"SelfPortraitin a Convex Mirror"has been called by Richard Stamelman
"a radical criticismof the illusionsand deceptions inherentin forms
of traditionalrepresentationthat insist on the ideal, essential, and
totalized nature of the copied images they portray."'7Nothing so
nakedlydeconstructivecan be found in Homer's account of Achilles'
shield, but if Ashbery'spoem is a "meditationon difference"rather
than on likeness, as Stamelman says (608), Homer's account of
Achilles' shield is a meditationon both, a verbal tributeto graphic
verisimilitudeand a sustainedcommentaryon the differencebetween
representationand reality.Describing the ploughmen depicted on
Achilles' shield, Homer writes,"The earth darkened behind them
and looked like earth that has been ploughed /thoughit was gold."'8
Homer thus reminds us that he is representingrepresentation,and
byexplicitlynotingthe differencebetweenrepresentationand reality,
he implicitlydraws our attentionto the frictionbetween the fixed
forms of graphic representation and the narrative thrust of his
words. Shortlyafterdescribingthe earth made of gold, Homer tells
us that the cattle depicted elsewhere on the shield were "wrought
of gold and of tin, and thronged in speed and with lowing/out of
the dung of the farmyardto a pasturingplace by a sounding /river,
and beside the moving field of a reed bed" (18.574-76).
Homer does two thingsin this passage: first,he reminds us again
of the differencebetween what is represented (the cattle) and the
specificmedium of representation(gold and tin); second and more
importantly,he animates the fixed figuresof graphic art, turning
the pictureof a single momentinto a narrativeof successiveactions:
the cattlemove out of the farmyardand make theirway to a pasture.
From Homer's time to our own, ekphrasticliteraturereveals again
and again this narrativeresponse to pictorialstasis,this storytelling
impulse that language by its very nature seems to release and
stimulate.That is why I must disagree with Krieger when he treats
ekphrasis as a way of freezingtime in space, and also with Wendy
Steiner when she defines ekphrasis as the verbal equivalent of the
"pregnant moment" in art-the literarymode "in which a poem
aspires to the atemporal 'eternity'of the stopped-actionpainting."'9
The "pregnant moment" of an action is the arrested point which
most clearly implies what came before the moment and what is to
followit. But as the example fromHomer shows,ekphrasticliterature
typicallydeliversfromthe pregnant moment of graphic art its embryonicallynarrativeimpulse, and thus makes explicitthe storythat
graphic art tells only by implication.20
In fact,since the pictureof a momentin a storyusuallypresupposes

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the viewer'sknowledge of the storyas a whole, ekphrasiscommonly


tells this storyfor the benefitof those who don't know it, moving
well beyond what the picture by itselfimplies. In his third-century
A.D. Imagines,for instance, Philostratusthe Elder tells of a single
paintingthat shows how Hermes was born on the crestof Olympus,
how the Horae cared for him there, how they wrapped him in
swaddling clothes and sprinkled flowerson him, and how-when
they turned to help his mother-he slipped out of his swaddling
clothes and walked down the mountain.2 This tendencyto translate
graphic art into narrative persists in the ekphrastic literature of
every period. In Dante's Purgatorio,we are told that the widow
depicted with the Emperor Trajan on the sculptured wall of the
First Terrace not only converses with him but gradually persuades
him to help her.22 In ChildeHarold'sPilgrimage,Byron explains-or
imagines on paper-the whole process by which the Dying Gaul of
Rome's Capitoline Museum actually dies.23 In "Self-Portraitin a
Convex Mirror,"John Ashbery retells Vasari's story of how Parmagianino produced his picture. And in a recentlypublished collection of contemporarypoems on pictures, almost every one of
the poets--as Robert Druce observes--triesto explain the picture
by constructinga narrative.24
These examples do not prove that ekphrasis inevitablyentails
narrativeor thatlanguage itselfdoes either.A poem such as William
Carlos Williams's "Hunters in the Snow"-an ekphrastic response
to Breughel's Returnof theHunters-concentrates entirelyon what
the picture actually contains and what its spatial relations are. But
the persistenceof storytellingin ekphrasticliteratureshows at the
veryleast thatekphrasiscannot be simplyequated withspatialization.
On the contrary,the historyof ekphrasis suggests that language
releases a narrativeimpulse which graphic art restricts,and that to
resist such an impulse takes a special effortof poetic will.
I will return to this point in a moment when I come to Keats's
"Ode on a Grecian Urn." Before doing so, however, I want to
consider one other strand in the ekphrastictradition:prosopopoeia,
or the rhetoricaltechnique of envoicing a silent object. Etymologically,ekphrasismeans simply"speaking out" or "tellingin full." To
recall this root meaning is to see more clearlywhat has been noted
by scholarssuch as Leo Spitzerand Jean Hagstrum: the genealogical
link between ekphrasis and sepulchral epigrams. These inscriptions
on ancient statues, tombs, and funerarycolumns allowed the mute
still object to identifyitselfin statementslike, "I am the tomb of
famous Glauca" (third century B.C.) and "I am the column of
Xenvares, son of Meixis, upon his grave" (600 B.C.).25 Philostratus

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clearlyreflectsthe influenceof such epigrams when he gives a voice


to Apollo in the painting of Hermes: "He looks as though he were
about to say to Maia, 'Your son whom you bore yesterdaywrongs
me; for the cattle in which I delight he has thrustinto the earth,
nor do I know where in the earth. Verily he shall be thrustdown
deeper than the cattle' " (103).
Sepulchral inscriptionsnot only initiate a line of development
reaching from passages like this one to the speech of Keats's silent
urn; they also look forward to something that a comprehensive
theoryof ekphrasis should at least touch upon: picturetitles.I have
tried to distinguishekphrasis from pictorialismand iconicity,but I
see no reason to close its borders against any kind of writingthat
is explicitlyconcerned witha work of art, and unless representation
requires the absence of the thing represented, a picture title is a
verbal representationof the picture. It answers preciselythe kinds
of questions answered by sepulchral inscriptions--Whois it? What
is it?-and it begins the work of interpretingthe picture for us.26
At the same time, it may also begin the work of convertingthe
picture into a narrative. In 1818, Henry Fuseli exhibited at the
Royal Academy a picturewiththe followingtitle:Dante,in hisdescent
to hell, discoversamidsttheflightsof haplessloverswhirledabout in a
hurricane,theformsof Paolo and Francescaof Rimini; obtainsVirgil's
to addressthem,and beinginformed
of thedreadfulblowthat
permission
sent themto thatplace of torment
at once, overcomebypityand terror,
dropslikea lifelesscorpseupon therocks.27
This of course is an extreme example of title as narrative: the
kind of titlethat paintersof historicalor literarysubjects feltbound
to furnishwhen theycould no longer presume theiraudience knew
the storytheytried to depict. Yet much shortertitlescan also serve
a narrativefunction.Take for instancethe titlethatJ. M. W. Turner
used for a seascape showinga small boat approaching a bigger one:
'Nowfor thePainter'(Rope). PassengersGoingon Board. Exemplifying
Turner's addiction to puns, the word Painterin this title refers at
once to the artistand--in a nautical sense--to the rope that will be
used to tie the boats together while the passengers are boarding.
Turner's titleis thereforedoubly narrational,connectingthe moment
depicted with the moment to come for the figuresin the picture
and for the artisthimself.But to thinkabout the moment to come
for the artistis to discover an irresolvableconflictbetween graphic
stasis and narrative movement. On one hand, the phrase Now for
thePainteranticipatesthe momentafterthe one depicted,the moment
when the rope will be attached; on the other hand, the phrase also
designates the impossible moment when the painter will depict the

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anticipatoryaction that is "now" before us, but that in real or


narratable time could only be a "then" by the time he set to work.
So the titlemischievouslyasks us to imagine figuressimultaneously
moving and fixed, patientlyposing for the painter who will "now"
depict them.
All by themselves,then, picture titlescan express preciselywhat
ekphrasis so often delivers: a radical critiqueof representation.The
best known example from our own century is of course the title
that Rend Magritte conceived for his painting of what looks very
much like a pipe: Ceci n'estpas un pipe. The titlegoads us to infer
that this is not a pipe because it is the picture of a pipe, but since
the pipes we see in the real world do not usually presentthemselves
in perfectprofileor hang suspended in midair withno visiblemeans
of support, we must conclude that this is not a picture of an actual
pipe but rather-as Michel Butor observes-a picture of depiction,
a graphic representationof the way pipes are conventionallyrepresented in advertisementsand textbooks: perfectlyprofiled, suspended in space, and labeled "pipe."28Thus Magritte'stitleor legend,
which is literallywrittenalong the bottom of the painting itself,
parodies the textbook labeling of pictures, undermines the assumptions on which such labeling is based, and implicitlyshows
how graphic and verbal representationtogether generate misrepresentation. But Magritte's title does more than parody textbook
labels; it also summons up for radical re-viewingthe whole tradition
of inscriptionand prosopopoeial envoicingthat stands behind the
historyof ekphrasis. To read the inscribed picture in light of this
traditionis to hear the famous nonpipe impudentlyand prosopopoeially piping: "Je ne suis pas une pipe."
If a truly comprehensive theory of ekphrasis must make some
room for picture titles,as I have been arguing, it must also open
itselfup to the vastbody of writingabout pictureswhichis commonly
known as art criticism.Had I world enough and space, I think I
could show thatartcriticismdeservesa place in the genre of ekphrasis
as a whole.29But for now I chieflywish to show how graphic art
is represented in ekphrastic poetry and how a knowledge of ekphrastictraditionscan help us understandthiskindof representation
in specific poems. Traditionally, I have argued, ekphrasis is narrational and prosopopoeial; it releases the narrative impulse that
graphic art typicallychecks, and it enables the silent figures of
graphic art to speak. I want to argue now thatin "Ode on a Grecian
Urn" and "Ozymandias," Keats and Shelley use these ekphrastic
traditionsto reflecton representation:notjust on a particularwork
of graphic representation,but on the nature of representationitself.

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Consider firstwhat Keats does with the ekphrastic traditionof


prosopopoeia that flowsfrom the sepulchral epigrams I mentioned
earlier. He opens the firststanza of his famous ode by apostrophizing
the Grecian urn as a "still unravish'd bride of quietness."o30Then
he himselfthreatensto ravishthe bride by making her speak. "What
leaf-fring'dlegend," he asks, "haunts about they shape [?]" (1. 5).
The quest for legend not only shows the narrativeimpulse asserting
itselffromthe verybeginningof thisekphrasticpoem; it also signifies
the urge to envoice the urn, for the word legendoriginallymeant
"to be read," and when a sepulchral inscriptionwas read aloud by
a traveler, the inscribed object spoke. But Keats's urn bears no
inscriptionand refuses to answer the kinds of questions normally
anticipated and answered by inscribed monuments. "What men or
gods are these?" the speaker asks. Instead of saying somethinglike,
"I am the tomb of famous Glauca" or "My name is Ozymandias,"
the urn speaks only silence, voicing neither storynor circumstantial
facts,saying nothingat all until it produces a finalconundrum that
transcendsnarrativeand circumstancealike: "Beauty is truth,truth
beauty" (1. 49).
To thinkof the poem in termsof timelesstranscendence,however,
is to miss the insistent pressure of narrative within it, and the
strengthof poetic will required to resistthat pressure. We can judge
the strength of Keats's resistance by contrastingthe ode with a
sonnet that he wrote two years earlier,"On a Leander [Gem] which
Miss Reynolds,My Kind Friend Gave Me." In this littlepoem about
an engraved gem representingLeander's ill-fatedswim across the
Hellespont, Keats follows the ekphrastic traditionof generating a
narrativefrom the stillmoment of graphic art. Just as Byron turns
the sculptureof the dyingGaul into the complete storyof his death,
Keats turns the engraved figureof Leander into the complete story
of his drowning,and the verylast line of the poem says of Leander:
"He's gone-up bubbles all his amorous breath."3' In the ode,
however, Keats checks the narrativeimpulse by restrictingit to the
world outside the urn. He can tell the storyof actual passion because
it changes, moving from desire to consummation and satiety--"a
heart high sorrowfuland cloy'd,/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue" (11.29-30). But since the lovers depicted on the urn
are figures"above" all human passion, they are also above change,
so that their lives-or rather their mode of existence--cannot be
narrated.
Yet part of what teases us out of thoughtin this poem is precisely
its narrativity.Even though Keats suppresses the narrativeimpulse
that ekphrasis typicallyreleases, he does not simply exchange the

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language of temporalityfor the language of spatiality,as William


Carlos Williamsdoes in "Hunters in the Snow." He does not simply
represent the lovers as figuresdeployed in space. Instead he calls
them into life as his auditors, and to these imagined auditors he
speaks a language of temporalitythatis paradoxicallyand repeatedly
affirmedby denial. If the pregnant moment of graphic representation enables us to see readily what precedes and what will follow
it, we can only conclude that Keats perverselychose to misread the
figureson the urn. For the momentwe identifythem withthe living
the
figures they represent, we must also imagine them completing
action signifiedby the pregnant moment of pursuit,and thus providing a narratable answer to the question which any picture of an
arrested act provokes: "What will happen next?" To this question,
which is conspicuously missing from the series of questions asked
in the first stanza, the only possible answer allowed by Keats's
negation of narrativewould seem to be: "nothing."Yet that is not
the answer Keats gives. On the contrary,he uses the language of
narration--ormore preciselyof prediction--tosay what willhappen
in the absence of change. In other words, he tells a storyof changelessness. In place of the actual moment-to-beso stronglyimplied
by the pregnant moment represented,he tells us what will happen
to figuressimultaneouslyquickened by desire and arrested by art.
What will and must happen-the ugly truthdevouring the graphic
beauty-is that the lovers will become unbearably frustrated:
Bold lover,never,nevercanstthou kiss,
Though winningnear the goal-yet, do not grieve;
She cannotfade,thoughthou has not thybliss,
For ever wiltthou love,and she be fair!
(11.17-20)
To imaginethe figures
These lines are profoundlyself-contradictory.
on the urn as lovers caught in a stateof permanentlyarresteddesire
is to expose them to the strainof time even as we professto exempt
them from it. To tell the lover not to grieve is to endow him with
the capacity to do so, and thus to imply that he will do so forever,
for by the verynature of graphic representation,the lover is powerless-both physicallyand psychologically--todo anythingother than
what he is already doing. If by chance he is grievingin the eternal
now of the moment represented, he can never obey the speaker's
command. He can never stop grieving.

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The prohibitionof griefis just one illustrationof the way Keats's


language excites the expectation of change even while ostensibly
celebrating the beauty and joy of changelessness. If the songs of
the melodist are "for ever new" (1. 24), each song would have to
from the one before; if
be different,or at least played differently,
the lovers face the prospect of "more happy love! more happy,
happy love!" (1. 25), they are simultaneouslyoffered an increase in
theirhappiness and reminded thatchangelessnessmeans no increase
at all-simply more of what they now possess, which is foreverless
than what they do not now and thereforenever can possess: the
happiness "still to be enjoyed" (1. 26).
I have ventured this far into Keats's ode only to suggest what we
may learn by reading it as a specimen of ekphrasis,which typically
represents the arrested moment of graphic art not by re-creating
its fixityin words but ratherby releasing its embryonicallynarrative
impulse. Keats's poem simultaneouslyexcites and frustratesthis
impulse, fullyexploiting all the expectations that the depiction of
desire provokes,yetbuilding up against any advance to gratification
an impregnable wall of negatives: "Bold lover, never, never canst
thou kiss,/Though winningnear the goal." Keats's poem thus makes
explicit what all ekphrasis implicitlyreveals: the inseparabilityof
representationand misrepresentation.On the one hand, the ekphrastic conversion of graphic art into narrative seems to restore
the totalitythat is just fractionallyrepresented--hence misrepresented-by graphic art; on the other hand, the Heraclitean flowof
narrative overrides--and hence misrepresents--therealityof what
can be experienced in a single instant,or what mightbe experienced
foreverif, as Kenneth Burke suggests,we could move beyond the
process of becoming into the eternal present of pure being.32But
Keats's own language defines the being of the figureson the urn
as process. Though "far above" all breathing human passion, they
are also said to be "For ever panting," forever breathing in and
out-the essential act of life as we know it. By thus exposing the
conflictbetween graphic and verbal representation,Keats makes us
see that neither one of them can ever fully represent being-no
matterhow near the goal they come.
The conflictbetween graphic and verbal representationoffersus
a generallyneglected way of interpretingthe key termsin the urn's
statement:beauty and truth. In treatingKeats's ode as a poem of
symbolic action, Kenneth Burke equates "beauty" with "act" and
"truth"with "scene," the universe in which action occurs (460). But
since the poem repeatedlythreatensto undermine the fixed beauty

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of graphic art with the language of narration,the urn's statement


can be read as a finalcommentaryon the conflictbetween the two.
Up to the very moment when the urn finallyspeaks, the poem
seems to tell us that we cannot have both at once, that we must
choose between the narratable truthof a passionatelymutable life
and the immutablebeauty of graphic art. We must sacrificeone to
the other just as the lives of the lovers must be sacrificedto the
beauty of the poses they hold forever in marble, and just as the
life of the littletown must be sacrificedto a ritual fromwhich none
of its inhabitantswill ever return.Recall the finalline of the stanza:
"O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede /Of marble men and
maidens overwrought"(11.41-42). The brilliantpuns here work like
the ambiguous drawing of the duck-rabbit.Because each aspect of
the drawing negates the other, we can see the drawing as either a
duck or a rabbitbut not both at the same time. Likewise,the words
"brede" and "overwrought"can signifyeithera livingbreed of men
and maidens overwroughtwith unbearably prolonged desire, or a
decorativebraid of unbreeding marble figuresdone in bas-reliefon
an urn thatis thus embroideredor "overwrought"withthem. Instead
of fusingtruthand beauty,the puns ask us to choose between them:
between the narratable truth of living desire, which may in time
become overwrought,and the timelessbeauty of graphic art, which
turns human figuresinto well-wroughtformal patterns.33
In equating truth and beauty, then, the urn affirmswhat the
poem has so far denied. By the veryact of speaking,the urn crosses
the line between graphic and verbal representation,between the
fixed, silent beauty of graphic stillnessand the audible movement
of speech. By the very act of speaking, the urn boldly declares that
graphic art can speak, that graphic and verbal representationare
one, that language achieves its greatest beauty and highest truth
when it transcendsnarrative,when it representsnot what has been
and what will be but what is. "Beauty is truth,truthbeauty." In the
second half of this chiastic utterance,the verb drops away, so that
language assumes thejuxtapositional effectof graphic art. Entering
and envoicing the mute stillobject, language abandons its narrative
impulse and gives itselfup to graphic stasis.
Keats thus subsumes a radical critique of graphic representation
withina work of iconophilic homage. Having repeatedlyshown the
conflictbetween the beauty of graphic stasis and the narratable
truth of action, he dissolves the conflictby taking graphic art as
the model for a language of transcendencethat aspires to represent
being rather than becoming. Yet verbal representation does not
therebydissolve into graphic representation,for the work of graphic

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art on which Keats finallymodels his language is itselfmediated by


language. The urn is as imaginaryas the littletown emptied by the
religious ritual depicted on it; we cannot know the urn except
through Keats's words.34 Keats pays his tribute, therefore,to an
object created by language, or more preciselyto the idea of graphic
representation,which language alone expresses here.
For this reason, Keats's tributeto graphic representationcannot
finallybe separated from his critique of it. His poem actualizes the
potential that ekphrasis has always possessed--the capacity to question and challenge the art it ostensiblysalutes. We have overlooked
thispotentialbecause, I think,we have too oftenuncritically
accepted
Lessing's view of ekphrasis as the mere replication of graphic art,
an act of homage demeaning to the freedom and intellectualdignity
of literature.35Keats's poem makes the act of homage a work of
critique, a verbal demonstrationof all that must be sacrificed to
make the idea of graphic representationat once beautifuland true.
This criticalstrainunderlyingthe ostensibleiconophilia of Keats's
ode subtlyconnectsit withanother conspicuous example of romantic
ekphrasis: Shelley's "Ozymandias." But Shelley's poem is explicitly
iconoclastic. While Keats demonstrates that ekphrasis can criticize
graphic art in the veryact of paying homage to it, Shelley goes one
step further,underminingthe assumption that graphic art itselfcan
pay lasting and unequivocal homage to what it represents. The
poem is short enough to be quoted in full:
I meta travellerfroman antiqueland,
Who said--"Twovastand trunkless
legs of stone
Stand in the desart.. . Near them,on the sand,
Half sunk,a shatteredvisagelies,whosefrown,
And wrinkledlip, and sneerof cold command,
Tell thatits sculptorwell thosepassionsread
Whichyetsurvive,stampedon theselifelessthings,
The hand thatmockedthem,and theheartthatfed;
And on the pedestal,thesewordsappear:
My name is Ozymandias,King of Kings:
and despair!
Look on myWorks,ye Mighty,
Nothingbeside remains.Round the decay
Of thatcolossalWreck,boundlessand bare
The lone and levelsands stretchfaraway."''36
Shelley'ssonnet questions what Keats's ode takes whollyfor granted:
the imperishabilityof graphic art. While Keats confidentlypredicts
that the urn will survive the wasting of the present generation as
of so many others that came before it, Shelley foresees the ultimate
dissolution of the statue. And to signifythe imminence of this

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dissolution,Shelleycomplicatesthe oppositionbetween graphicstasis


and narrativemovement in an extraordinaryway: he verballyperpetuates a moment in the historyof a statue. Sculpted to represent
and Shelleycatches
enduring greatness,it is graduallydisintegrating,
it at a pregnant moment of transitionbetween erectness and prostration: the standing legs recall the self-assertivemajesty of the
original monumentwhile the shattered,half-sunkvisage looks ahead
to its final oblivion-its ultimate leveling-in "the lone and level
sands."
In the sestet of this sonnet, Shelley follows ekphrastic tradition
by recording the words on the pedestal and thus envoicing the
statue,which resoundinglydeclares, "Look on my works,ye Mighty,
and despair." But these words simply accentuate the transitional
statusof the monument.The singlemeaning theyoriginallyconveyed
has disintegratedinto a double meaning that looks backward and
forward in time. Like the statue on which they are inscribed, the
words at once recall the invincible assurance of Ozymandias and
foretellthe coming dissolution of his works.
The expression fixed on the shattered,half-sunkface, therefore,
cannot serve as the pregnant moment of a narrativeto be ekphrasticallyinferredor furnishedabout the life of Ozymandias himself.
Instead, the fixityof the expression signifiesthe rigidityof Ozymandias's despotic arrogance,whichhas petrifiedhis face in a "sneer
of cold command" thatthe sculptorhas at once imitatedand obeyed,
since he undoubtedly worked under orders fromthe ruler himself.
Ozymandias sought to perpetuate his power through the medium
of sculpture,through "lifelessthings"that would permanentlyrepresent his personality.But the sculptor's hand mocks the passions
that it represents,and time in turn mocks any aspirations that the
sculptor might have had for the immortalityof his art. Forever
committedto one unchanging expression, neither Ozymandias nor
the sculptor can command or control the leveling effectsof time,
which convert the face of power into an object of ridicule or-as
withthe grandiloquentinscription--imposeupon its twistedfeatures
a meaning radically differentfrom the one originallyintended, so
that what were once the frownand wrinkleand sneer of absolute
authoritybecome at last the marks and signs of desperation.
Shelley thus reveals thatin spite of its claims to permanence,both
the matter and the meaning of graphic art can be fundamentally
changed by time, reconstitutedby successive interpretations.As
William Freedman has recentlyshown (see note 3), the whole poem
is a study in mediation. After the opening words it is spoken not
by the poet himself but by a "traveller"he has met, which is of

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course Shelley's way of personifyingor envoicing a text-his not


yet definitelyidentifiedliterarysource."3 The poet draws the voice
of the travelerfrom the textjust as the travelerhimselfdraws the
voice of Ozymandias from the inscriptionon the pedestal. And in
each case the relation is mediated. Shelley reads a text in which
the traveler reports his reading of an inscription.
Before quoting the inscriptionand thus envoicing the statue as
a whole, however, the traveler reads and envoices the sculpted
visage. Its "frown,/And wrinkledlip, and sneer of cold command,"
he says, "Tell that the sculptor well those passions read, /Which yet
survive, stamped on these lifeless things,/The hand that mocked
them, and the heart that fed." The sculpted face graphicallyrepresents the expression of the living ruler, which originallysignified
passions that the sculptor has inferredor "read" from it. Between
the sculpted face and the actual one, therefore,stands the interpretive act of the sculptor,who knows how to read faces well and
to represent them in stone so that their expressions can be read-can tell us what they signify.Yet the sculpted face tells us as much
about the sculptor'sabilityto read Ozymandias as about Ozymandias
himself.As a result,we are led to compare the sculptor's reading
of the ruler withthe inscription-the ruler's own reading of himself
and his works.
To compare the graphic representationand the verbal self-representationis to see that each corroboratesthe other. Ozymandias's
statementcan be read as a comment on the statue-clearly one of
his most stupendous works-and the statue can be read as a graphic
response to the statement,a way of interpretingit in stone. Neither
statue nor statement,however,communicateswhat Ozymandias presumably intended by them both: an immutable assertion of his
power. The meaning of both changes radically as the all-too-perishable medium in which they are wrought disintegrates.
The factthat the inscriptionwill disintegratealong withthe statue
should cause us to question an inference that Shelley's iconoclasm
temptsus to draw-which is that language surpasses graphic art in
its power and durability.Paraphrasing what Horace said of his odes,
Shelley might have said of this sonnet, "Exegi monumentum petra
perennius"--I have built a monument more lasting than stone.
Raising up his own little tower of words to mark the inexorable
leveling of the ancient statue, Shelley makes manifestwhat virtually
all ekphrasis latentlyreveals: the poet's ambition to make his words
outlast their ostensible subject, to displace graphic representation
with verbal representation.Yet the fate of everythingwroughtand
inscribed by order of Ozymandias should prompt us to ask how

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long any work of representation,whether verbal or graphic, can


endure. If words cut into stone cannot last, what will happen to
words writtenon paper or even printed in a book? Will Shelley's
own poem last as long as the statue of Ramses II, which was already
well over a thousand years old when Didorus Siculus described it
in the firstcenturyB.C.?38
Shelley'ssonnet leaves us withquestionsjust as disturbingas those
raised by Keats's ode. Though Keats is ostensiblyiconophilic and
Shelley iconoclastic,each in his own way stages a strugglefor power
between rival modes of representationand makes us see thatneither
gains absolute victoryover the other. Neither verbal narrativenor
graphic stasiscan fullyrepresentbeing; neitherwords nor sculpture
can make absolute claims to permanence, stability,or truth.In these
two ekphrasticpoems, then, Keats and Shelley use the verbal representationof graphic art as a way to reveal the ultimateinadequacy
of all representation.
DARTMOUTH

COLLEGE

NOTES
1 In what is probably the earliest definitionof the term, which was extensively
used by Greek rhetoriciansof the firstfive centuries A.D., it is called simply "a
descriptive account bringing what is illustrated vividlybefore one's sight." (Shadi
in Heliodorus
Bartsch,DecodingtheAncientNovel: The Readerand theRole of Description
and AchillesTatius[Princeton,1989] p. 9.) In the Greek rhetoricalhandbooks, statues
and paintingswere treated amongthe objects suitable for ekphrasticdescription,but
only after the fifthcentury did ekphrasiscome to denote the description of visual
art exclusively(Bartsch, p. 10).
2 See Leo Spitzer, "The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' or Content vs. Metagrammar,"
7 (1955), 208, and Murray Krieger, "Ekphrasisand the Still
Literature,
Contemporary
Movement of Poetry; or, LaokodnRevisited,"in The Poet as Critic,ed. Frederick P.
W. McDowell (Evanston, Ill., 1967), p. 8; hereaftercited in text.
3 Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), pp. 116-52;
WilliamFreedman, "Postponementand Perspectivesin Shelley's'Ozymandias,'" Studies
in Romanticism,
25 (1986), 63-73.
4 See Wordand Image, 2 (1986).
5 Murray Krieger calls ekphrasis "a classic genre" ("Ekphrasis,"5), but this would
put it on a par withepic and tragedy.Since no formalor syntacticfeaturesdistinguish
the literaryrepresentationof visual art from other kinds of literature,and since it
can appear withinany recognizedgenre fromepic to lyric,it maybe more appropriately
termed a mode, like pastoral or elegy. But while those two can be largely defined
by their subject matter,the subject matter of ekphrasis requires us to define it in
terms of representation.
6 See n. 2 above. In "Words on Pictures: Ekphrasis,"Artand Antiques(March 1984),
80-91, John Hollander surveysexamples of ekphrasis from Homer to our own time
and makes some suggestivecommentson them,but he does not attemptto construct

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a theory of ekphrasis as a literarymode. In a revised version of this essay, "The


Poetics of Ekphrasis,"Wordand Image, 4 (1988), 209-19, Hollander coins the useful
phrase "notional ekphrasis" (209) to designate poetic representationsof imaginary
works of art.
7 See Joseph Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature,"firstpublished in Sewanee
Review,53 (1945) pp. 221-40, 433-56, 643-53; and W. J. T. Mitchell,"Spatial Form
in Literature: Toward a General Theory," in The Language of Images,ed. W. J. T.
Mitchell (Chicago, 1980), pp. 271-99.
8 Krieger repeatedly denies that he is subjecting poetry to a static formalism."In
resistanceto the ekphrasticimpulse," he says, "it cannot be too often urged that the
aesthetic desire for pure and eternal form must not be allowed merely to freeze
the entity-denyingchronological flow of experience in its unrepeatable variety"
("Ekphrasis,"24). But if the "ekphrasticimpulse" is a formalizingtendencythat must
be resisted,can the "ekphrasticprinciple" embrace both fixityand movement?More
A Traditionand its System(Baltimore, 1976), Krieger
recently,in Theoryof Criticism:
has writtenthat "the critic'sdescriptionsof the object in formal and spatial terms
... are his weak metaphors,which, if he takes them too seriously,will distort-by
freezing-the object" (p. 39). If ekphrasis is simply a weak metaphor for poetic
integrityand a continuing threat to poetic vitality,its criticalvalue is minimal. To
maximize its critical value, we must firstidentifythe distinguishingfeatures of
ekphrasis as a literarymode.
9 Michael Davidson, "Ekphrasis and the Postmodern Painter Poem," Journal of
Aesthetics
and Art Criticism,
42 (1983), 71; hereaftercited in text.
10 In a paper on "Postmodern Ekphrasis" delivered at the Columbia Colloquium,
Linda Hutcheon applied the term ekphrasisto such postmodern phenomena as the
incorporationof newspaper articlesin the novels of Julio Cortazar and John Fowles.
Likewise, in a dissertationtitled "Figures in the Carpet: The Ekphrastic Tradition
in the RealisticNovel" (Rice University,1981), Mack L. Smithbroadlydefinesekphrasis
as the introductionof any work of art-whether verbal or literary-into another
work of art, so that his examples range from the discussion of portraiturein Anna
Karenina to the debate about Hamletin Ulysses.My own definitionof ekphrasisrests
upon what I believe to be a fundamentaldistinctionbetween writingabout pictures
and writingabout texts.
11 John M. Bender, Spenserand LiteraryPictorialism,
(Princeton, 1972), pp. 40-80,
pp. 105-48.
12 See William Marling, WilliamCarlos Williamsand thePainters,1909-1923 (Athens,
Ohio, 1982), pp. 80-83.
has come to mean any "natural" or "motivated"similaritybetween words
13 Iconicity
and what they signify,so that it includes not only onomatapoeia and texts with
visuallysignificantshapes (concrete poetry) but also certain kinds of syntax. Roman
Jakobson,for instance,sees iconicityin Caesar's "I came, I saw, I conquered" because
the order of the clauses corresponds to the chronological order of the events they
signify.See Roman Jakobson, Wordand Language, vol. II of SelectedWritings(The
Hague, 1971), pp. 345-59. For extensivediscussion of iconicityin literature,see the
entire issue of Wordand Image, 2 (1986), especially the introductionby Max Nanny
(pp. 197-208).
14 I am thinkingparticularlyof Ian Hamilton Finlay's "XM poem" (1963), which
appears in An Anthology
of ConcretePoetry,ed. Emmet Williams (New York, 1967),
n. p. (poems printed in the alphabetical order of the authors' names).
15 See for instance W. D. Snodgrass, "W. D. Assists in Supporting Cock Robin's
Roost," in Wordand Image, 2 (1986), 74-75.
16 Crane himself tried (unsuccessfully)to use one of Joseph Stella's paintings of

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the Brooklyn Bridge as a frontispieceto The Bridge,and he described the poem in


explicitlypictorial terms,speaking of its "architecturalmethod" and comparing the
interdependence of its sections to the interdependenceof the frescoesin the Sistine
Chapel; see John T. Irwin, "Foreshadowing and Foreshortening: The Prophetic
Vision of Origins in Hart Crane's The Bridge,"Wordand Image, 1 (1985), 288-89.
But however much Crane's poem may resemble or evoke a painting by Stella or
any other work of art, the bridge that Crane representsis not itselfrepresentational;
it is an object serving a practical purpose in the real world. I should add that I
recognize the considerable differencesbetween the panoramic scope of The Bridge
and the minimalistfocus of "The Red Wheelbarrow."The only point I wish to make
here is that while each poem may remind us of pictures,neither one is ekphrastic
in the strictsense I have proposed.
17 Richard Stamelman, "Critical Reflections:Poetryand Art Criticismin Ashbery's
'Self-Portraitin a Convex Mirror,'" New Literary
History,15 (1984), 607-30; hereafter
cited in text.
18 Homer, The Iliad, tr. Richmond Lattimore(Chicago, 1951), 18.548-49, emphasis
added; hereaftercited in text. See also Virgil's descriptionof the shield of Aeneas:
"The picturedsea flowedsurging,all of gold" (Virgil,TheAeneid,tr. Robert Fitzgerald
[New York, 1983], 8.671).
in Paintingand Literature
19 Wendy Steiner,Picturesof Romance:FormagainstContext
(Chicago, 1988), pp. 13-14.
20 I do not mean here that a picture cannottell a story,or that it cannot tell a
storywithoutthe aid of a text,or that pictures differessentiallyfrom textsbecause
texts tell self-sufficient
stories while pictures do not. Since a poem such as "Leda
and the Swan" does not tell a self-sufficient
storywhile a painting such as Gainsborough's Two ShepherdBoys Fightingdoes, I am not speaking categoricallyabout
whatpicturesand textscan or cannot do. I merelydescribewhatekphrasistraditionally
does with graphic art.
21 Philostratusthe Elder, Imagines,tr. Arthur Fairbanks, Loeb Classical Library
(London, 1931), 1.26.101-5. According to Philostratus,the painting also shows how
Hermes playfullyhides Apollo's cattle, dons his swaddling clothes again to seem
innocent,and then steals Apollo's weapons (105). The painting here described may
consist of several distinct panels representing successive phases of the story, as
Renaissance frescoes would later do, but Philostratusmakes no mention of panels;
he speaks only of what is "in the painting" (ev -ui ypaoqi).
22 See Dante, Purgatorio,10.73-93.
23 See George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,vol. III of Lord
Byron:The CompletePoeticalWorks(Oxford, 1980), p. 171, 4.1252-69.
24 See Wordand Image, 2 (1986) and Robert Druce's "A Foreword to the Poems,"
p. 46.
25 I quote the firststatement from an epigram of Theocritus in vol. II of the
tr. W. R. Paton (New York, 1917), 145, and the second from Paul
GreekAnthology,
Friedlander and Herbert Hoffleit,Epigrammata:GreekInscriptions
in Verse(Berkeley,
1948), p. 9. See also Spitzer 221-22n. and Jean Hagstrum,TheSisterArts:The Tradition
in EnglishPoetryfromDrydento Gray(Chicago, 1958), pp. 22of LiteraryPictorialism
23. pp. 49-50. (For reasons given in 18n., Hagstrum calls the verbal representation
of graphic art "iconic" rather than "ecphrastic.").
26 "The unique purpose of titling,"writesJohn Fisher, "is hermeneutical; titles
are names which functionas guides to interpretation."("Entitling,"CriticalInquiry,
11 [1984], 288.) This is particularlyobvious in the case of Renaissance emblems,
which are scarcelyintelligiblewithouttheir titles.Thus the legend PRUDENZA tells
us how to construe the quattrocento relief of an old man with three faces-one

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young, one middle-aged, one old-as signifyingawareness of past, present, and


future. (Erwin Panofsky,Meaning in the Visual Arts[Chicago, 1982], p. 151 and fig.
29.) In Renaissance emblem books, the title or legend can become a catechetical
prosopopoeia, with the picture made to answer a series of questions about its
significance:under the woodcut of a naked lady standing on a wheel in the middle
of the sea in GeoffreyWhitney'sA Choiceof Emblemes:And OtherDevices(1586; rpt.
New York, 1969), for instance,we read: "What creature thou? OccasionI doe showe./
On whirlingwheele declare why dost thou stande? /Bicause,I stillam tossedtoo,and
froe." [The emblem is reproduced in Rosemary Freeman, English EmblemBooks
(London, 1948), p. 2.] It may be objected that titles and legends of this kind do
not represent the picture so much as they denote what the picture represents,and
the objection gathers force when applied to modern paintings such as Joan Miro's
Head ofa Woman(1938), whichsimplydepicts a long-beaked,saw-toothed,grotesquely
fat bird. If we followNelson Goodman's theoryof graphic representation(Languages
of Art [Indianapolis, 1976], pp. 27-31), we would have to say that such a picture
representsthe head of a woman as a bird,just as the quattrocentorelief represents
prudence as a three-headed man and Whitney'swoodcut represents"occasion" (i.e.,
opportunity)as a lady at sea on a wheel. The relation between a picture and its
titleor legend, however,is not unidirectionalbut reciprocal,so thatthe titlerepresents
the picture quite as much as it guides us to see what the picture represents.As is
well known to anyone who has ever looked from a painting to its title and back
again, titleand picture can each serve as signifierto the signifiedof the other. Even
the ultimatelyminimalisttitle"Untitled,"as Hazard Adams notes, "seems to presume
a viewer,and it seems to presume to teach by negation . . . how it should be viewed"
46 [1987],
and ArtCriticism,
("Titles, Titling,and EntitlementTo," JournalofAesthetics
13). In balking our desire to be told what the picture represents,such a titlegoads
us to consider what the word "Untitled"represents,what kind of pictureit negatively
signifies.
27 Cited in Annals of theFine Arts,ed. James Elmes (London, 1817-20), III, 292.
28 Michel Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture(Geneva, 1967), p. 77. See also Michel
Foucault, This is not a Pipe, ed. and tr.James Harkness (Berkeley, 1982).
29 Michael Baxandall explicitlyconnectsart criticismto ekphrasisin the introduction
to his Patternsof Intention:On theHistoricalExplanationof Pictures(New Haven, 1985),
pp. 1-11. See also Svetlana Alpers, "Ekphrasisand Aesthetic Attitudes in Vasari's
23 (1960), 190-215.
Lives,"Journalof the Warburgand CourtauldInstitute,
30 John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack
Stillinger(Cambridge, Mass. 1978), p. 372; hereaftercited in text by line.
31 John Keats, "On a Leander which Miss Reynolds, My Kind Friend Gave Me,"
in Stillinger,p. 94.
32 Kenneth Burke, "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats," in his A Grammarof
Motives(Berkeley, 1969), p. 449; hereaftercited in text.
33 Nancy Goslee argues that Keats uses the contrast between the sculpturesque
and the picturesque to symbolize the opposition between the timeless, objective
serenityof classic culture and the restless, time-bound subjectivityof modern or
"romantic" culture (Uriel's Eye: MiltonicStationingand Statuaryin Blake, Keats, and
Shelley[Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1985], p. 5). Keats's "Urn," which Goslee does not treat,
aptly illustratesher central point. Though the urn is sculpted marble, as the final
stanza plainlyindicates,the restlessprobing for specificanswers in the opening stanza
suggests the picture of a specific time and leaf-fringedplace, and the situation of
the youth "beneath the trees" is likewise picturesque. But while these picturesque
qualities of the urn provoke the speaker's curiosityand sympathywith the mood of
an erotic moment, the sculpturesque qualities of the urn-the timeless serenityof

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HISTORY

its "cold marble"--leave the speaker himselfcool, detached, and objective.


34 The line about "marble men and maidens overwrought"clearlytells us that the
urn is sculptured marble rather than painted pottery,but the object itselfhas never
been positivelyidentified.From the evidence assembled by Ian Jack I infer that
Keats composedhis urn from a varietyof sources: neo-Atticvases, the Elgin Marbles,
and the paintings of Claude Lorraine. See Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirrorof Art
(Oxford, 1967), pp. 217-19.
35 Lessing does not use the termekphrasis,
but he describesthe verbal representation
of graphic art as nothingbut copying: "Instead of representingthe thingitself,[the
poet] imitates an imitationand gives us lifeless reflectionsof the style of another
man's genius rather than his own." (Laocoon: An Essay on theLimitsof Paintingand
Poetry,tr. Edward Allen McCormick [Baltimore, 1984], p. 45.)
36 I quote fromShelley'sPoetryand Prose,ed. Donald Reiman and Sharon B. Powers
(New York, 1977), p. 103.
37 The text that Shelley's travelermost likelypersonifiesis Diordorus Siculus's first
century B.C. description of a statue of Ramses II, but various other sources have
been proposed; see Freedman, pp. 63-64.
38 Similar questions arise from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli," where all thingsare said to
fall,where the marble handiworkof Callimachus survivesonly in the poet's ekphrastic
evocation of "draperies that seemed to rise/When sea-wind swept the corner" (11.
31-32), and where the figurescarved in lapis already bear the signs of dissolution:
dents, cracks, and discoloration. But unlike Shelley, who ekphrasticallyturns the
broken statue into a historyof gradual annihilation,Yeats draws from the disintegrating lapis a narrativeof renewal: "All things fall and are built again /And those
that build them again are gay" (11.35-36). Thus, while every dent and crack and
discoloration in the lapis may be read as "a water-courseor an avalanche" (1. 45),
and may thus signifydevastationand weeping for "Old civilisationsput to the sword"
(1. 27), the poet imagines the climbingfiguresreaching theirgoal: the littlehalfway
house sweetened by "plum or cherrybranch" (1. 47) (the stuffof leaf-fringedlegend),
where "mournfulmelodies" (1. 53) rejuvenate with gaietythe ancient, glitteringeyes
of the two Chinamen. (W. B. Yeats, "Lapis Lazuli," in The Poems:A New Edition,ed.
Richard J. Finneran [London, 1984], pp. 294-95.)

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