The Creative Function Of Ekphrasis In The Work Of Shelley, Keats, And Wordsworth

Writers and aesthetic critics of the 18th Century wrestled with numerous questions about beauty and nature. Mind and matter was one of the most frequently asked questions. This is how beauty can be attributed to the object or projected onto it by the viewer. Eliot seems to have answered this question by separating the potential sources of beauty. He suggests that we should love […] both the ‘formed object’ and the human sympathy’. This linguistic separation can expose a frustrating form of estrangement that exists between the subject of the viewed object and the poet. Gotthold Moresing calls this ekphrasis. A verbal description (or a metaphor) of a visual artwork that seeks to fill in the gaps between the subject, object and their perceptions. James A.W Hefferman suggested that ekphrastic Poetry transforms art into a story, which expresses one’s thoughts. Hefferman also points out the merging in mind and matter. However, it also highlights the fatal flaws within the goal of an ekphrastic piece. The words of the poem cannot express the visual object in an objective or pure manner. The nature of the obstruction means that the poems are able to create and animate a new form. The result is a revision, which seeks to replace the original object. It is both beautiful and subjective.

Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn is dominated by Shelley On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci at the Florentine Gallery’ and Wordsworth ‘Elegaic Stanzas. Suggestions by a Pictures of Peele Castle, in a Storm., Painted Sir George Beaumont.’ This tension is between stasis & motion. Keats’ Ode’ expresses a deep frustration with the inertia and movement of the urn.

The sibilances’still’, silence, and’slow’ indicate a tonal anger at Keats’ apparent inability to make the urn yield to him. Keats’ desire is to ravish the urn and unravel its mysteries. This is the frustration that visual objects have with language. Words are not able to represent them. Shelley also has trouble with his portrayal of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Medusa. He is not only trying to depict a piece that is still intact, but also because it represents a figure who turns anyone who looks at her into stone.

It seems to lie on its lips, and eyelids./Loveliness, like a shadow./Fiery and lurid./The agonies that anguish and death.

Shelley finds the animations of this statue vague. The ‘agonies’ that he perceives’struggle beneath’ what he considers to be a partially permeable layer of indifferent stillness are what the statue’s animations. Shelley as well as Keats think these works of artwork are beautiful, but Shelley believes that their inability to move is something that hinders their beauty. Keat’s choice to call himself a ‘foster child of silence, slow time’ is a clear example of this. It suggests that the urn has become a child of silence, slow time, and wrongfulness, even though it was never intended to be so. Frederick Burwick argues that although Keats insists on [the urn’s] stasis for its permanence in art, the poet still asserts the temporal motion he pretends it to reject’. Keats asks many questions about the inaccessibility of the urn, but in the act of asking them, creates movement and dynamism in the object he wants to portray.

Are there gods or men? What mad pursuit/What maidens loth? What struggles to escape/What pipes or timbrels What wild joy? [8-10]

Keats points dubiously to the urn, and although he asserts that it is silently unyielding, he continues to show an image of’mad pursue’, escape’, or ‘ecstasy. Shelley also depicts the same figure in his’medusa’. The figure appears to have a fixed gaze and has hair that actively grows.

And from its heads as from one,/As […] green out of a wet rock,/Hairs are vipers which curl and flow/And their long, tangled locks in each other/And with inexorable involutions/ Their mailed radiance [17-21]

The hairs are ‘curling and flowing’, then ‘locking’ in tangles. This is the ‘growth’ that we see here. In the wider context of Shelley’s and Keats’ ekphrastic methods, this image of grass growing from a ‘watery stone’ seems especially illuminating. Both can perceive a solid, visual image and are able to describe it using words. Murray Krieger, in his writing on Ekphrastic Poetry, states that it’s the ‘romantic journey to realize the nostalgic dream a new, pre-fallen languages of corporeal present’. They can both perceive a visual, solid image, and then label the object in their titles. The inability to present the visual artwork with spacial immediacy in language creates a new and temporal dynamic image. David Kennedy suggested that it should be evaluated and judged as an individual work of art. Wordsworth’s Peele Castle is an example of this struggle between stasis movement, but the principle behind creating new artifacts does not change. Beaumont’s painting of the castle looks wrong to Wordsworth. Wordsworth thought it was a place with calm and tranquility, but sees it in Beaumont’s painting. Wordsworth also perceives a ‘lightning and violent wind, and plunging waves’. The painting makes him feel sad, since he can’t connect with his mental image of it.

This is the thing that I can see/A smiley sea, and what I have always been. [37-40]

Wordsworth says that the artifact is beyond his imagination. At this point, however, it is too late. Beaumont’s painting has been created by Wordsworth before the reader can even see it.

Ah! If I had the skills of a painter, I would have put the ancient building in a place that was unlike the current world, and it would have looked like a heavenly storehouse.

Shelley’s final lines could be easily viewed as ekphrastic by themselves.

A woman’s countenance, with serpent-locks,/Gazing in death on Heaven from those wet rocks. [39-40]

These lines read almost as an evocative poem by themselves – something that would appear many years after Shelley’s passing. This raises questions as to the intentions of the Ekphrastic Poem, which can be so concisely written. As I’ve already mentioned, the inaccessibility in visual artifacts produced by these poems leads to a new visualization. This is based upon the temporal perceptions that the writer makes after viewing and reflecting. These perceptions can be generated either on the spot (Shelley) as well as from pre-existing knowledge (Wordsworth). Shelley and Wordsworth can also use these ekphrastic poetic poems to demonstrate that their frustrations do not constitute a defeat. Keats closes his poem, as an example, with these lines:

Beauty is truth, beauty truth, that’s all you know. [49-50]

Although these lines may have been taken in a broad sense, Keats was expressing frustrations. Shelley’s case reveals that any mystery can be solved by his pushes to the sublime.

the night sky/Flares are a light that is more dreadful and obscurity than the sun./’Tis tempestuous loveliness in terror’ [31–33].

He ‘justifies’ his inability to capture the artefact with words by evoking the sublime with ‘loveliness and terror’. The fullness of an artefact is not possible, but it is still a property of its owner. Hefferman stated that the ekphrastic poems are not meant to reproduce the visual in language, but rather to’remake the original’. They serve to bring form and subject closer together. Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth’s frustrations at their inability to comprehend and reflect the object create a new object, one that is imbued both with their subjective judgements and the original. Kennedy suggests that the poems can be seen as a critical discussion of visual representation, animating a story behind an unyielding object.


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    Bailey Williams is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog as a way to share her insights and knowledge with her readers. She has been teaching for over 10 years and has a deep understanding of the school system and how to help students reach their goals. Her blog is packed full of helpful information and resources, so be sure to check it out if you're looking for help with your schoolwork!