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The Crossings of Art in Ireland

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Edited By Ruben Moi, Brynhildur Boyce and Charles Armstrong

The essays in this volume explore interartistic connections in Irish literature, drama, film and the visual arts. Within modern and postmodern culture, innovation is often driven by surprising interrelations between the arts, and this book offers a discussion of this phenomenon and analyses a number of artworks that move across disciplines. Several contributors examine the concept of ekphrasis, looking at how Irish writers such as Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Patrick Kavanagh, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett have responded to the visual arts. Others explore interartistic ‘crossings’ in the drama of Brian Friel, in James Barry’s eighteenth-century Shakespeare paintings and in contemporary Irish film. Together, the essays present a fresh perspective on Irish artistic culture and open up new avenues for future study.
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‘A Shabby Old Couple’: Seamus Heaney’s Ekphrastic Imperative

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← 212 | 213 → EUGENE O’BRIEN

‘A Shabby Old Couple’: Seamus Heaney’s Ekphrastic Imperative

‘Ekphrasis’ is the name given to the description in words of a real or imaginary painting or sculpture. Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield and Keats ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ are paradigmatic examples. Theorists of ekphrasis quite properly distinguish between descriptions of paintings, sculptures, or pots that really exist and descriptions of imaginary ones, such as the two examples I have given. Auden ‘The Fall of Icarus’ and Ashbery ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ describe (though that is of course not quite the right word; ‘read’ might be better) paintings by Breughel and Parmigianino, respectively. These paintings do really exist and can be set beside the poems.1

As Hillis Miller and Asensi point out, ekphrasis has been a central trope in the repertoire of the aesthetic, as it speaks towards the human desire for mimetic representation of the world in which we live. The urge to represent reality through the iconic text, or the verbal text, is central to the ekphrastic imperative, as words attempt to represent real paintings or else imagined ones, but in both cases, the fusion of the iconic and the textual is what is in question. Ekphrastic poets are drawn to ‘portraiture, landscape, pictures of people in a landscape, and still-lifes, and somewhat less to sculpture’.2

← 213 | 214 → As a tenet of classical poetic theory, the term owes a significant debt to the work of Quintus...

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