Purple Prose

In my writing group on Wednesday we talked a little bit about “purple prose” and wondered where the phrase actually came from.  I decided to look it up and shared it with the group.  I thought I’d share the origins of the phrase with you.

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):[2]

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?”

(Purpureus meant lustrous or dazzling in Horace’s Latin.)

The phrase is basically used to mean that your writing is so stylized and flowery that it undermines itself.  Here are some great examples:

Grand prize: “Ace, watch your head!” hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn’t, you know, since nobody can actually watch more than part of his nose or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning.” From Janice Estey, Aspen, Colorado.

Historical: Ulysses Simpson Grant, having just finished a meal of Virginia ham, stretched out in his underwear of Mississippi-grown cotton, puffed heavily on a Georgia cigar, swilled straight bourbon whiskey, and thought how good it was to be in the Union Army.” From Albert Klar Ogden, Stansbury Park, Utah.

Urban realism: “The city at night has a million stories, like the woman who, even now, was weeping over the bloody corpse of her lover lying where she had slashed him from neck to kneecap, or the 12-year-old kid prostrate on the sidewalk after a drug deal gone wrong, or the babe, desperate to find the stuff that stopped your dress from sticking to your legs after you ironed it and couldn’t find a convenience store at this black hour in a city without a name.” From Michael Davies, Mississauga, Ontario

Purple Prose: “Nigel lifted his Mont Blanc pen and held it in brief repose as he gazed past the conflagrative crackling of the fire in the hearth, through the triple-plate bay window, watching the incandescence of the twinkling stars like the detonation of a million flashbulbs, and the preponderance of frothy snowflakes blanketing the earth as creamily as marshmallow fluff, then, refreshed and inspired, he began to compose his annual Christmas form letter.” From Linda Gauer, Norton, Ohio.

Western: Following the unfortunate bucking of his horse when it was startled by the posse’s shots, Tex who now lay in a disheveled heap in the sagebrush pushed back his sweat-stained Stetson from one deep-set eye, spat a stream of tobacco juice at the nearest cactus, and reflected momentarily that the men approaching him with ropes probably weren’t just out for a skip, and if they were his freshly broken ankle would have to cause him to decline any entreaties to join them.” From Becky Mushko, Roanoke, Virginia.

Dishonorable Mention, Pun: “Baron Frankenstein looked up from his sewing, smiled benignly across the laboratory at his similarly engaged creation and protege and called, `Yes, yes! Put on a happy face; tonight will be your first date with the rest of your wife!” From Anthony Buckland, of North Vancouver, Canada.
These are all examples from The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is held annually and has the wonderful mottoe of “Where ‘WWW’ means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’.”  The contest is based on the opening line of Paul Clifford (1830) by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.  You’ll recognize the first phrase, though you probably have never read the rest of the sentence.  It cracks me up every time I do.

“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.”

Seriously, that is how this guy decided to open his book.  No joke.

If you want to read the winners from this contest for the part 28 years, go here.  It always brightens my day.


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