"And first Hephasestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface, raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge and five layers of metal to build the shield itself."
So begins Homer's lengthy and lyrical account of how the blacksmith god forged the famous Shield of Achilles. The god then hammers the shield into five sections, and covers them with images of the earth, sky, sea, sun, moon, and stars. He then forges onto the shield pictures of two cities, a wedding celebration, a murder trial, an advancing army, domestic and wild beasts, a war, a field full of plowmen, a vineyard, a meadow, and dancing boys and girls.
Homer's blow-by-blow description, which occurs in the eighteenth chapter of The Illiad, is among the earliest examples of "ekphrasis"—a vivid description of a thing. Ekphrasis during the Greek period included descriptions of such battle implements, as well as fine clothing, household items of superior craftsmanship (urns, cups, baskets), and exceptionally splendid buildings.
Homer's description of Achilles's shield was later imitated by Hesiod in his description of Heracles's shield, by Virgil describing Aeneas's shield, and by Nonnus describing Dionysus's shield. In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden re-envisioned Homer's story in his poem "The Shield of Achilles," replacing Hephasestus's grand images with apocalyptic ones: barbed wire and bare fields, rape and murder, bureaucrats and sentries.
Auden's poem is an example of how ekphrasis has changed in modern times. Ekphrastic poems are now understood to focus only on works of art—usually paintings, photographs, or statues. And modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity's obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.
"Particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there is a good deal of such poetry, addressing a wide range of good and bad, great and obscure, unglossed or overinterpreted works of art, and taking up a range of stances toward their objects," wrote John Hollander in The Gazer's Spirit, a collection of ekphrastic poems and the artworks they confront. Some of the ways modern poets have faced works of art, Hollander wrote, "include addressing the image, making it speak, speaking of it interpretively, meditating upon the moment of viewing it, and so forth."
For example, both Auden and William Carlos Williams were inspired to write about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's sixteenth-century masterpiece Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In the painting, the focus is on a farmer plowing his field; meanwhile, in the bottom-right corner of the painting, one can barely see the legs of Icarus as he plunges into the sea. Auden and Williams were drawn to Bruegel's treatment of the Greek myth, how he played down the death of Icarus and instead emphasized the workaday efforts of the farmer. In the poem "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," Williams wrote:
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
Similarly, in "Musée des Beaux Arts," Auden wrote:
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns
Quite leisurely from the disaster, the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure