• Dennis Haskell

This paper discusses the value of ekphrastic poetry through focussing on one key issue that comes into debates about it: the concept of Time. The paper begins with a brief history and analysis of the links and contrasts between poetry and painting – from Horace and Simonides through Lessing and Kant to the modern period. In doing so it also recounts differing views in the philosophy of Time. Authors whose literary works are discussed include T. S. Eliot, Kenneth Slessor and Stephen Carroll, and the author also considers one of his own ekphrastic poems, whose starting point is a painting by the Italian, Giorgio Morandi. The paper argues for a pragmatic approach to the concept of Time and for a view of ekphrastic poetry as a conversation between poetry and painting, rather than an argument. 


Keywords: poetry – painting – ekphrasis – time – philosophy of time – imagery


Poetry, imagery and time are large, signicant concepts, even without considering  the relations between them, and this paper does not pretend to deal with them thoroughly. Like a number of other modern and contemporary poets I am interested in ekphrastic poetry, particularly poetry based on paintings, and I want to consider one key issue in the relation between poetry and painting: their differing uses of time.

Every modern discussion of ekphrastic poetry has in its background or more likely in its foreground Horace’s statement 'Ut pictura poesis' – as is painting, so is poetry. Although it is the modern locus classicus for the subject, aestheticians point out that it has a precedent in the statement made, according to Plutarch, by Simonides of Ceos that painting is 'mute poetry' and poetry 'a speaking picture' (Steiner 1982: 5), thus asserting an equivalence between the two arts. Links between the arts have always been interesting and developments in digital technology, combined with an infatuation for 'Making it new', have led to cross-disciplinary art forms becoming very popular in contemporary arts. The 2013 restructuring of the Australia Council was based on such interest. Ekphrastic poetry represents one of the older cross-disciplinary art forms, almost as old as theatre, and it may seem one of the simplest, since ekphrastic poetry requires no complex technological wizardry at all. It may seem one of the simplest … until you begin to think about it.

The Simonides-Horace view held sway for a long time and still has its adherents. Sir Philip Sidney, ever a student of the classics, in the first important essay on poetics in English, his A Defence of Poetry (c 1579), argued that 'the peerless poet … giveth a perfect picture' of what 'the philosopher saith should be done' and he described 'poesy' as a 'speaking picture' (Sidney 1973: 32-33). In the twentieth century Wallace Stevens commented on 'how often a detail, a propos or remark, in respect to painting, applies also to poetry' (Stevens 1960: 160). Stevens, however, also drew attention to the technical differences between poetry and painting. In this he was part of a long tradition. John Opie, lecturing to the Royal Academy in 1807, drew attention to 'the acknowledged similarity in the principles and effects of these two arts' but also to 'the very great diversity in their modes and means' (Quoted by Philimore in Lessing 1874: 26). Similarly, the painter Henry Fuseli said to the Royal Academy that 'Poetry and Painting resemble each other in their uniform address to the senses, … our fancy, and … our mind' but they 'differ … essentially in their materials and in their modes of application' (Quoted by Philimore in Lessing 1874: 28). Fuseli’s last clause in fact is taken directly from Plutarch. Both Opie and Fuseli were drawing on the work of the great German aesthetician, Gotthold Lessing, whose book Laocoön in 1766 marked a break in aesthetic tradition and emphasised the differences between the two arts, especially as regards time. The painter presents line and colour in space, the poet presents sounds in time. Lessing thought poetry to be the greater art because it could present a succession of actions or thoughts. Leonardo da Vinci, being a painter, thought the opposite: since the painter served sight while the poet served sound, and sight is the superior sense (Steiner 1982: 6). Lessing and all these other thinkers except Wallace Stevens were writing before the period of Modernism and the aesthetician Wendy Steiner has argued, soundly I believe, that the painting-poetry link was predicated on the idea of mimesis. Both arts were attempting to present just depictions of nature, and the whole issue becomes more complex once art no longer seeks to be representational (Steiner 1982: 7ff.).

There are reasons for the centuries long development of the different arts as distinctive disciplines  with their own characteristics and their own traditions. A simple reading of Horace’s dictum blurs significant differences between painting and poetry, and Lessing was right that one of them concerns their different senses of time. Time seems, notwithstanding Einstein, one of the fundamentals of our world, an absolute. Cosmologists tell us that time only began with the Big Bang – an idea that I think I understand and think I don’t understand simultaneously. Einstein proved, scientists tell us, that time can only be understood in relation to space, as a continuum, so that our experience of one depends on our experience of the other, and is affected by the speed at which we travel. I think I understand this, but for those of us sitting on earth reading a poem or viewing a painting the common sense perception of time as an absolute concept works perfectly well.

You may be reassured by this, but the word 'perception' could give you pause, so it is worth reflecting on philosophers’ analyses of time. No concept seems more incomprehensible than after a philosopher has got hold of it, and time is no exception. I should be fair to the philosophers and say that at least some of this complexity does seem to inhere in the concept itself. St Augustine in his Confessions asked, 'What, then, is time? If no-one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not' (Augustine, Confessions, Bk XI, Ch 14). Philosophers’ response to Augustine’s problem range from that of Parmenides and Zeno amongst the ancient Greeks and most famously of J Ellis McTaggart in modern times, that time is an illusion, to the common sense view that our world has a temporal order separate from us. In between we can find Aristotle’s view that time is a measure of change; I say 'in between' because this means that in a situation of no change there would be no time; time would stand still, almost literally (See Bardon 2013: 8-26, 31-37, 80-85 and Le Poidevin, passim). For Immanuel Kant time comes from within us; it is our way of establishing order in our experience of the world – and he thought this about space too. Kant said that 'time is … the real form of inner intuition' (Kant, quoted by Cameron 1979:239). Our experience is temporal (and spatial), just as it is sensory, because that’s the kind of creature we are. However, for Heidegger, time is 'the basic category of existence', as it was for Newton (Heidegger, quoted by Meyerhoff 1955: 27; for Newton see Bardon 2013: 50-59). You may get a sense of the problem with time if you think of our usual division of it into past, present and future – and this is the way Augustine posed it. Augustine asked,

How is it that there the two times, past and future, when even the past is now no longer and the future is now not yet. But if the present were always the present, and did not pass into past time, it obviously would not be time but eternity. If, then, time – if it be time – comes into existence only because it passes into time past, how can we say that even this is, since the cause of its being is that it will cease to be? (Augustine, Confessions, Bk XI, Ch 14)

Moreover what is the present, when it can be broken down into infinitely smaller quantities? Our experience is always of the present, but we can’t say what the present is, and how can we recognise the past? Augustine ended up as an Idealist, like Kant, and attributed the creation of time to God: 'thou hadst made time itself' (Augustine, Bk XI, Ch 14). You might see this Idealism as a solution or as the 'I give up' position.

It was the division of time, or the idea of the present, that gave rise to Zeno’s famous paradoxes whereby, for example, Achilles gives a tortoise a start in a race; at a certain point he is half-way to where the tortoise is; the tortoise moves on, more slowly than Achilles, and Achilles will then be left half-way to that point and so on; he will never catch up with the tortoise but runs into an eternal regress of fractions. Attempts to explain this follow the Bergsonian argument of durée, duration; time is a flow rather than a series of connected, discrete moments. Philosophers find problems with this explanation but in literature a term such as 'stream of consciousness' indicates literary writers’ and critics’ acceptance of the concept. Literature works with ideas as experienced rather than in abstract conception so writers tend to accept common sense ideas of time.

Wallace Stevens asserted that 'there may be a fundamental aesthetic of which poetry and painting are related but dissimilar manifestations' but also that such generalisations 'are speculative. One is better satisfied by particulars' (Stevens 1960: 160). Even Lessing thought that 'the principal force of the remarks of the critic depends upon the correctness of their application to the particular case' (Lessing 1874: 55), so I turn to particular writers. In 'The Sun Rising' John Donne described 'hours, days, months' as merely 'the rags of time' and love as outside time but like much in the Songs and Sonnets this might read like rhetoric rather than attempted truth (Donne 1973: 80). W H Auden saw time as 'intolerant / Of the brave and innocent' and as forgiving writers 'by whom it lives' ('In Memory of W B Yeats', Auden 1979: 82), while Philip Larkin, always a stickler for common sense, saw it as like life: 'Whether or not we use it, it goes' ('Dockery and Son', Larkin 1971: 38). Both these stances suggest a real force outside ourselves. The most complicated poet regarding time is, I think, T S Eliot, himself a student of philosophy. In the famous lines that open Four Quartets Eliot wrote:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

(Eliot 1974: 189)

Eliot’s position is arguably similar to Augustine’s; both were writers in search of redemption. Eliot posits a timelessness in time in his opening lines and the whole poem ends with a  vision of eternality intersecting with earthly time. In 'Little Gidding' Eliot described history as 'a pattern / Of timeless moments' (Eliot 1974: 222) and stressed, less mystically than in his closing lines, the importance of memory, which has an essential role in understanding the distinction of the past from the present: 'This is the use of memory: / … / … liberation / From the future as well as the past' (Eliot 1974: 219).

Time, for reasons unknown to me, has been a significant preoccupation in Australian literature, and our poetic tradition includes two major poems on the subject, Kenneth Slessor’s 'Out of Time' and 'Five Bells'. Slessor was a very visual poet but neither of these is an ekphrastic poem. The experience of time in dealing with painting and in dealing with poetry is indeed very different. A painting, it has often been said, is perceived all at once – we see the whole painting immediately, even if we only notice its details by staring at it for some time or by repeated viewings. To the sharp eye it reveals all of itself at once. Thus its only tense is present; we may see a favourite painting many times throughout our life, if we are lucky, but each viewing occurs in the present. 'A painter', said Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'has but one moment to exhibit' (Quoted by Philimore in Lessing 1874: 24).

Language, however, works not immediately but sequentially, especially a language such as English which has dispensed with inflections to indicate noun cases and so relies on word order to convey meaning. This poses no problem to a trained reader, but reading inevitably requires the passing of time. If time is a matter of recording change, then narrative flow is fitted to it perfectly, and we have no problem in reading that an event was in the past, is happening ‘now’, or will occur in the future. Stephen Carroll, winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction, is particularly given to omniscient narration and a complexity of tenses but sentences such as the following provide no great difficulties of understanding:

Nor did Vic ever discover that Aunt Katherine eventually came home, to be housed (in those years to come when Vic would live alone in a coastal town to the subtropical north) in a permanent gallery in the country’s capital (Carroll 2012: kindle location 3131).

We understand the flow of meaning because we have present experiences and memory and thus understand the flow of time. Thomas Mann said 'time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life' (The Magic Mountain, quoted Meyerhoff 1955: 3).

The main form of modern poetry, however, is lyric, and lyric involves little and most often no narrative. Consequently Wendy Steiner defines the lyric as atemporal and claims that

the lyric pretends to represent one now-point in its speaker’s consciousness. It is supposedly a single present, a suspended moment in the flow of time… This definitional atemporality of the lyric is another motivation for the comparison with the visual arts… (Steiner 1982: 48).

The literary critic Sharon Cameron in her study of Emily Dickinson titled Lyric Time argues that the lyric poem 'must push its way into the dimensions of the moment… the moment is to the lyric what sequence is to the story' (Cameron 1979: 204). These views implicitly mark a return to support for Simonides' and Horace’s view and a denial of Lessing’s: painting and lyric poetry are alike in their treatment of time.

Australians have inherited the British philosophical tradition of empiricism, and I am characteristically Australian in that I am a pragmatist, which means that I think theory follows practice in aesthetics; so I want to test this claim by turning to those two poems of Slessor’s that have time as subject and theme. At the beginning of 'Out of Time',  a sequence of interlinked sonnets, Slessor’s speaker sees time as movement:

I saw Time flowing like the hundred yachts
That fly behind the daylight, foxed with air;
Or piercing, like the quince-bright, bitter slats
Of sun gone thrusting under Harbour’s hair.

So Time, the wave, enfolds me in its bed,
Or Time, the bony knife, it runs me through.
“Skulker, take heart,” I thought my own heart said,
“The flood, the blade, go by – Time flows, not you!”

Vilely, continuously, stupidly,
Time takes, me, drills me, drives through bone and vein,
So water bends the seaweeds in the sea,
The tide goes over, but the weeds remain.

Time, you must cry farewell, take up the track,
And leave this lovely moment at your back!

(Slessor 1994: 129)

Slessor capitalises 'Time' throughout the poem, which suggests a force outside the self, and 'force' is the word. Time is a power which the self must resist but the speaker does so uncertainly: 'I thought my own heart said / … Time flows, not you!' However, 'Time … drills me, drives through bone and vein, / So water bends the seaweeds in the sea, / The tide goes over but the weeds remain'. Time and tide wait for no man, but he attempts to be like the weeds and remain in 'this lovely moment'. Time’s 'flowing' indicates duration but Slessor posits a Zeno-like position whereby a moment might be separable from it. Does this make sense? It does, I think, make poetic sense, helped by the imagery because we all understand the wish to stop time at least at certain moments – in a sense we do so in every act of memory. A word which you might easily overlook is the sonnet’s second word, 'saw'. The poem is cast in the past tense – 'I saw', 'I thought'. I think that in any reading we have to see the poem as expressing and exhibiting a passage of time rather than a single moment. Time sweeps past like yachts, like the flow of the tide, even as the speaker wishes it to stop.

The second sonnet presents this flow as Time’s 'fate' but the speaker in the closing couple claims to win the struggle against time, staying in the moment, resisting Time’s 'golden undertow'. The third and concluding sonnet claims at first to be in that single moment, seeing the birds only 'begin to climb', 'shadows' begin to 'flow' as if caught in a bubble like a photograph. The speaker claims to inhabit a way of seeing like that of a camera, which freezes individual moments in time. He could feel 'Fleshless and ageless, changeless and made free'. But it is impossible for the human to stay outside Time: 'I was taken by the suck of sea'. The gulls fall, 'the body dies and rots'. The poem does not present the experience of stilling time as illusory but as temporary, as itself momentary. We can understand this in terms of the experience of contemplation, meditation, trance or of being transfixed by some perception, thought or feeling. Although it is not a religious poem, part of its substratum – its seabed as it were – is the traditional Western dichotomy between a permanent soul and an impermanent body.

The poem’s imagery is further developed in 'Five Bells', which Slessor insisted was 'fundamentally an expression of the relativeness of "time"', downplaying a reading of the poem as elegy (Slessor 1994: 392). Within the few seconds it takes to ring the five bells at 10.30pm Slessor relives the life of Joe Lynch as he has known it, and reflects, sometimes agonisingly, on why he needs to do so. Sharon Cameron argues that the 'lyric posits a speaker whose identity … remains deliberately unspecified, unlike that of characters in narratives…. All of identity is translated into voice' and this shift 'from the finite constrictions of identity' is linked to her argument about the lyric’s shift into atemporality (Cameron 1979: 208-09). Theory of its nature presents generalisations and as with almost all generalisations practice provides exceptions. Unlike 'Out of Time', 'Five Bells' is delivered by a speaker who we know from Slessor’s biography and his comments on the poem to be Slessor himself. A self dramatised to be sure, but it would seem perverse to argue that this is an unidentified 'I'.

The speaker being Slessor makes it logical to place the poem in the normal chronology of human life; even if Joe’s life is imaginatively recollected in a few seconds, we know that a life takes longer and that even reading the poem, with its complex shifts between personal recollection and philosophical reflection, takes longer. The poem shifts between present and past tense, and begins by pointing out the difference between objectively measured time and subjectively experienced time: 'Time that is moved by little fidget wheels / Is not my time'. This is one of the big subjects of Modernism in all literary genres. It is true I think that lyric poetry generally deals with internalised reality – with reflection on ideas, emotions or events rather than on events themselves. This might make it seem a natural partner for the Kantian, Idealist sense of time as merely a human construct and perhaps therefore also matched with the momentary sense of time associated with painting. However, the sequential nature of language, the tense construction of verbs, and often the specific statements of the poet, as in 'Five Bells', turn us towards a sense of time as passing. Memory and emotion comprise 'the flood that does not flow' and they are placed within a world that rings out 10.30pm and the change of watch on 'the dark warship riding there below'. Slessor might want 'Time … moved by little fidget wheels' not to be his time but ultimately he knows that it is: the poem ends with the 'bells coldly ringing out' like an alarm clock.

Neither 'Out of Time' nor 'Five Bells' is an ekphrastic poem but both work strongly with imagery, as in Slessor’s deepest reflection, both literally and metaphorically, about Joe Lynch’s death:

The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short…

These lines shift from present to past tense but the imagery is so powerful that the shift is almost imperceptible. In recollection Slessor relives the experience of what he felt, so that the difference between the time periods, and the verb tenses, are elided. The imagery is not only visual but it is primarily visual, probably because sight is our dominant sense – so the rhythim and the line breaks and the sound patterning seem to reinforce the visual effect rather than some other way around. This is as close as writing gets to painting, and it is tempting to see these lines as taking us out of ordinary time into a Platonic 'Idea' of timelessness (where Joe might be thought now to reside). However, even here there is movement, not the stasis of painting or photography, and movement/change can only take place in time: shadows are 'let down', 'sea-pinks bend', the 'wet' pushes its metaphorical 'thumb-balls in'. Moreover, unlike in a painting, Slessor can only give us these details one by one and our attention is taken by them sequentially. In imagistic writing time is slowed but not entirely suspended. Of course the lines show us why timelessness is an ideal: always at our back and winging near, time leads in the end to death, the 'Nothing' that has no spatial or temporal dimensions, being 'neither long nor short'.

This may seem to make poetry and painting ill-matched, but pragmatism requires examination of at least one poem that tries to bring the two together. Time demands that I choose a short poem and here is one I know from the inside since I wrote it but I have never before thought about it like a critic. The poem takes its title from the painting 'Fiori, 1924', by the Bolognese painter whose work I much admire, Giorgio Morandi[1]:

Haskell 1.jpg


Fiori, 1924
               after Giorgio Morandi

Shaped in themselves
they tip a delicacy so
intense you would not feel
our lives scarred to perceive it,
yet smell and colour
arch out of the slender vase

and the tone of its shadow.
Colourful, they have come to  show
the whole world shadowy
even in its resplendence.
The vanquishing of restlessness.
The glance of silence.

No smell of brushstroke. As though
our lives had stepped sprightly
out of themselves, hearing red:
the self turns to flowers while
these flowers lift
and evaporate into light.

(Haskell 2006: 72)

The painting is delicate and the poem attempts to be so too but I see now that it interprets the painting, it doesn’t describe it – a process which Lessing particularly disdained. The poem sees the painting as portraying the flowers so delicately that they seem to incarnate or at least point to a world superior to our world. They are so delicate that they almost 'evaporate' and hardly seem to have been created by brushstrokes. The flowers incarnate stillness and silence – the poem is cast in present tense or in sentences with no active verb at all. The only action in the poem comes at the end when the 'flowers lift / and evaporate into light' – an action that is present continuous and in that sense does not mark the passing of time.

The poem is dependent on the painting but they still seem to operate differently. At the end of the poem the reader doesn’t feel like he or she is at the beginning but no such temporally induced shift occurs in viewing the painting. The painting may well be superior but the poem can offer intellectual reflections which the painting cannot because the abstract medium of words enables the expression of thought whereas the painting just offers itself. Even art criticism is practised in words, not paint. However, the painting in some sense can embody what the poem can only say; it is not a particularly imagistic poem because all the images are held by the painting. There is no opportunity to add to them and no point in reproducing them. A description of a painting is not much of a poem; good poems are always interpretative.

These differences might make poetry and painting incompatible arts but I think it is just these differences which make ekphrastic poetry viable. Any successful relationship works because of the right mixture of similarities and differences. Ekphrastic poems vary and no theory of ekphrasis is ever likely to encompass all that they do. The best model for ekphrastic poetry is that of conversation since that allows for engagement and variety. An ekphrastic poem is a conversation with a painting (or other type of image). This analogy may seem loaded towards the poet since a poem can speak literally and a painting only metaphorically but an ekphrastic poem is after all a response to a painting and will often only work with the painting in mind. The painting lends meaning to the poem through its imagery, technique and perhaps context; even as it remains still and silent, like Keats’s Grecian urn a painting can offer visual speech that motivates verbal painting and thus participate in a conversation rather than an argument.

[1] The painting is held in the Morandi Museum in Bologna and is available on the web at http://www.artribune.com


Works cited: 


Auden, W H 1979 Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, London: Faber and Faber

Augustine 1955 Confessions, trans. & ed. Albert C Outler, University of Pennsylvania Press, at www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/hum100/augustinconf.pdf (accessed 28 May 2014)

Bardon, A 2013 A Brief History of Time, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cameron, S 1979 Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, Baltimore MA: Johns Hopkins University Press

Carroll, S 2012 Spirit of Progress, Sydney: HarperCollins, Kindle ed. 3131.

Donne, J 1973 The Complete English Poems, ed. A J Smith, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Eliot, T S 1974 Collected Poems 1909-1962, London: Faber and Faber

Haskell, D 2006 All the Time in the World, Cambridge: Salt

Horace, “Ut pictura poesis”, at www.writing.upenn.edu/~affireis/88/utpict.html (accessed 28 May 2014)

Larkin, P 1971 [1964] The Whitsun Weddings, London: Faber and Faber

Le Poidevin, R “The Experience and Perception of Time”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/time_experience (accessed 28 May 2014)

Lessing, G E 1874 Laocoön, ed. Sir Robert Phillimore, London: Routledge

Meyerhoff, H 1955 Time in Literature, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press

Sidney, Sir P 1973 A Defence of Poetry, ed Jan Van Dorsten, 2nd ed, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Slessor, K 1994 Collected Poems, ed. D Haskell and G Dutton, Sydney: Angus and Robertson

Steiner, W 1982 The Colours of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting, Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press

Stevens, W 1960 [1942] The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, London: Faber and Faber