Ekphrasis (S. Harrison)

This contribution will look at the narrative function of artefact ekphrasis – here interpreted as the verbal description of objects – in Greek and Roman epic poetry and ‘epyllia’ such as Moschus’ Europa and Catullus’ Carmen 64. Its primary focus will be on the way in which an ekphrasis can work as a prolepsis in narratological terms, a device by which a future portion of the story is recounted out of temporal sequence in the narrative. The use of ekphrasis in this proleptic role also raises the question of point of view or narrative focalization, a technique which has been fruitfully applied to classical texts with interesting results. If a description within a narrative signifies future events it is likely to do so from a particular point of view, focalized by a particular character. The characters of the narrative, unless they themselves have gifts of foresight or of prophetic interpretation, will naturally be unable to recognise the significance of the proleptic ekphrasis in predicting the future course of the narrative, and the resulting gap of knowledge between the non-omniscient character and the omniscient character (e.g. a divinity), omniscient narrator, or omniscient (second-time) reader, is frequently a source of dramatic irony and pathos. 

There also sometimes arises the issue of whether a prolepsis is intradiegetic, anticipating events inside the story of the narrative where it occurs, or extradiegetic, anticipating events outside the literary work, but familiar to its readers. Most proleptic ekphrases in classical narrative texts are intradiegetic, but as we shall see there are examples of the extradiegetic kind, and indeed cases where it is difficult to decide. This issue in turn (like that of irony) raises the question of the role of the reader: where knowledge of events outside the story is required, we are clearly dealing with the horizons of expectation or the ‘repertoire’ of the intended reader of the work, without which such prolepsis will not function.