Purple Prose

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Purple prose is a modern version of the eighteenth century phrase “purple patches.”

Both phrases mean the same thing, and refer back to the Classical Latin poet and critic Horace; specifically to Horace’s references to purpureus pannus in the bit starting at l. 15 in Ars Poetica:

Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana’s grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.
There’s no place for them here.

In the middle ages the overly ornate passages of Latin were frequently highlighted by scribes in case the reader missed them; they were in different colors of ink, or marked by marginal devices.

Purple prose is always considered overly, excessively ornate. Whether or not you like purple patches is a matter of taste; their existence is not. I note that it is generally a pejorative phrase. One can, with somewhat exasperated fondness, for instance, point to “purple prose” or “the purple patches” in Shakespeare. More often than not, the Shakespeare passages are instances of Shakespeare (or one of his characters) mocking the overly educated but idiotic. (Yes, like me.)

I would add that neither Burton nor Browne are proper examples of purple prose. Yes, I know, Wikipedia mentions Browne’s Garden of Cyrus. But both are seventeenth century prosodists deliberately copying, or trying to copy, a specific kind of Latin sentence in English; both were quite in control of their style, and the works in question were stylistically coherent.

In some ways, the English tradition of purple prose goes back to the sixteenth century, and John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit.

The issue of purple prose is not whether it’s good or bad or you like it or you don’t; the issue, as with all stylistic devices and rhetorical figures is—

  • Is the writer in control?
  • Is the prose serving the story?

Sometimes, as in Bulwer-Lytton, the prose is serving the writer. That oft-quoted reference to “murder your darlings” is related to the idea of purple prose in that it refers to prose that serves the writer — or rather, the writer’s ego.

Here’s the context:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

In this context, your darlings = purple prose.