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Purple prose

This is an article about a literary term. For Purple Prose magazine, see Purple (magazine).

Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader's response.

When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages; these are often noted as standing out from the rest of the work.

The term purple patch is also used in a more general, and more unequivocally positive, sense to refer to a period of outstanding achievement. This usage is particularly common in sporting contexts: for example, a footballer who had scored in six successive games might be said to be "enjoying a purple patch".

Origins

The term "purple prose" is derived from a reference by the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65–8 BCE) who wrote in his Ars Poetica (lines 14–21):

Inceptis grauibus plerumque et magna professis
purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter
adsuitur pannus, cum lucus et ara Dianae
et properantis aquae per amoenos ambitus agros
aut flumen Rhenum aut pluuius describitur arcus;
sed nunc non erat his locus. Et fortasse cupressum
scis simulare; quid hoc, si fractis enatat exspes
nauibus, aere dato qui pingitur?

(Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy purple patches; as when describing a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana, or a stream meandering through fields, or the river Rhine, or a rainbow; but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?)

Purple dye was rare in the Ancient World, with only the wealthiest able to afford it (this is why purple robes and trim came to be associated with the Emperor and, later, European royalty). During the Roman Republic, social climbers would sew purple cloth onto cheaper clothing to give an appearance of wealth. This was regarded as pretentious and gaudy.

Horace was alluding to this practice, saying that passages marked by ornate rhetoric or elaborate poetic diction were like those "purple patches", ostentatious and inappropriate. Horace's advice was that a work should have a stylistic consistency appropriate to its subject matter.

The Ars Poetica was first translated into English by Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), though her translation remained unfinished at the time of her death. A complete translation by Ben Jonson (1572–1637) was first published in 1640, with another by Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon, (1633–85) following in 1680. These were all highly influential, with Horace regarded as the ultimate authority on good writing. Through them, the terms "purple patches", "purple passages" and "purple prose" became a standard part of the English critical lexicon.

Examples

A frequently cited example of purple prose is the penultimate paragraph of The Garden of Cyrus by Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82), first published in 1658:

But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations; making Cables of Cobwebs and Wildernesses of handsome Groves. Besides Hippocrates hath spoke so little and the Oneirocriticall Masters, have left such frigid Interpretations from plants that there is little encouragement to dream of Paradise it self. Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the Bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose.

A more recent author famous for purple prose is Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803–73), who begins his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Often shortened to just "It was a dark and stormy night", this opening has given rise to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants are asked to supply equally florid opening sentences to their own otherwise imaginary novels.

Other instances of purple prose quoted from the novel include "As soon as the Promethean spark had been fully communicated to the lady's tube" (meaning Once the lady lit her pipe), "a nectarian beverage" (wine), "a somnambular accommodation" (a bedroom), and so on.

John Ruskin prefaced his contrast of the Mediterranean with the Northern (Gothic) landscape, architecture and character in "The Nature of Gothic"' with an imaginary stratospheric flight, seeing:

Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue, chased, as we stoop nearer to them, with bossy beaten work of mountain chains, and glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange, and plumy palm, that abate with their grey-green shadows the burning of the marble rocks, and of the ledges of porphyry sloping under lucent sand. Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colours change, is gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland, and poplar valleys of France, and dark forests of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands. (The Stones of Venice)

Modern instances of purple prose can often be found in romance novels. These started alluding to sex in the 1970s and authors, not wanting to be either pornographic or clinical in their descriptions, developed many euphemisms to describe body parts and sexual activity. Examples include "throbbing manhood", "quivering desire" and (he) "filled her with the hot wet tumult of his love." Body parts are often referred to simply by the term his or her "sex", which allows for such (parody) sentences as "He put his sex in her sex and they had sex."

Romance writers are aware of the problem, with Deb Stover contributing an essay "The Purple Prose Eater" to the book How to Write a Romance For The New Markets (1999).

Modern usage

Modern critics use "purple prose" to refer to any writing that is undermined by its overstylized and formulaic nature. Many pulp genres have become infamous for excesses of purple prose, including romance, mystery, and adventure; likewise, in journalism, the term is often used to refer to writing that places tone and emotional heft over factual reporting.

A few writers in these genres have adopted the term as a badge of pride: A fanzine called Purple Prose was devoted to the documenting of purple prose in the pulps; the Purple Prose Press was a publisher (now defunct) which specialised in re-printing material from the pulps; and there is a currently active on-line magazine (e-zine) called, simply, PurpleProse.

When referring to writing published on the internet, e.g., fanfiction, this phrase is sometimes written as "urple prose," with the misspelling satirizing the simple spelling errors present in much of internet fanfiction. "Urple" can also be a reference to vomiting, a possible reaction to reading extremely purple prose.

Apparently as a backlash from the extravagances of modernist and postmodernist writing, as well as the extreme popularity of Hemingway's writing and a penchant for the public to dislike excess in writing (whether it is unnecessary or beneficial to the piece of fiction), a great deal of modern literary fiction is done in the manner of classic "fine writing." Writers with experimental styles, such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Jonathan Safran Foer, often find themselves criticized in modern times for overwriting, despite also being widely praised by many critics (especially in the cases of McCarthy and Pynchon) as some of America's greatest writers. This is mostly a result of the public aversion to what some of them might see as purple prose. Situations such as this bring to the foreground the difficulty of walking the line between gorgeous, rich writing and flowery, purple prose.

More recently, Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle has been heavily criticised for its constant and unrelenting use of purple prose throughout the entire series.

See also

References

  • Coles Editorial Board, Dictionary of Literary Terms, Rama Brothers, 2001.

External links

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