On purple prose

Another repost of a comment on The Passive Voice.

The phrase ‘purple prose’ goes back to Horace’s Ars Poetica; and in Horace’s time, purple dye was a rare luxury, and purple was the colour of kings. He objected to ‘purple patches’ not because they were rich or ornate, but because they were patches and did not match the fabric of the whole story. Here is a translation of the passage in which he coined the phrase:

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?

You can see that it is extraneous purple that he objects to, and not purple per se.


  1. How true. Continuously purple prose make take a bit of effort to get into, but as long as it’s consistent, it gets you into the flow — and can convey a world different from more ordinary prose.

    • Indeed. As I was saying on TPV, E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros is a spectacular example of this. It probably defines the limit of just how purple a writer’s prose can be and still serve the needs of the story. (‘So purple it makes plums look pale’ was how I described it.)

  2. Mr. Simon, I am happy to see you prolifically posting. Hopefully that means you are well enough to be writing for my (non-blog) entertainment as well (speaking selfishly). A side note/request, if not too much to ask – When providing a comment to a blog post on another blog (e.g. The Passive Voice) could you provide a link to said post so that one can easily read the context? Thanks.

    • Normally I do, but I’m afraid I’ve made rather an ass of myself on TPV so far this week, and, well, I was ashamed to link to that. This is a confession, not an excuse.

      • James R. Asher says

        You posted something stupid in a combox? Terrible! Shameful! Also, happens to everyone. (On another blog right now someone’s pointing out I didn’t read all the relevant links before shooting my mouth off. D’oh.)

  3. I’m not much of one for purple prose, but I think it’s mostly because of what you mention: it’s usually just there for its own sake, and not to advance the story or illuminate it. I had to skip large blocks of The Road for that reason.

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