Purple prose

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This article is about the literary term. For the album by Deep Purple, see Purple Passages.

In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.[1] Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, zombie nouns, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.

Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions. As there is no precise rule or absolute definition of what constitutes purple prose, deciding if a text, passage, or complete work has fallen victim is a subjective decision. According to Paul West's words, ". . .a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is [widely seen as] immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity."[2]


The term purple prose is derived from a reference by the Roman poet Horace[3][4] (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65–8 BC) who wrote in his Ars Poetica (lines 14–21):[5]

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?
"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. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
In despair?"[6][7]

In culture[edit]

Northwestern Magazine calls the 800-word personal essay found in every issue Purple Prose.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "A Word a Day – purple prose". Wordsmith.org. Retrieved 26 December 2014. 
  2. ^ West, Paul (15 December 1985). "IN DEFENSE OF PURPLE PROSE". New York Times. Retrieved 26 December 2014. 
  3. ^ Nixon, Cheryl (2008-12-30). Novel Definitions. Broadview Press. pp. 194–. ISBN 9781770482074. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  4. ^ Macrone, Michael (1994-05-18). It's Greek to Me. HarperCollins. pp. 147–. ISBN 9780062720443. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  5. ^ Horace (18 BC). Ars Poetica. Lines 14–21.
  6. ^ HORATII FLACCI ARS POETICA - epistulae 3 - Translated by A. S. Kline, 2005
  7. ^ Alternative translation: "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?"
  8. ^ Russell, Stephanie. "Purple Prose Guidelines". Northwestern Magazine. Retrieved 26 December 2014. 
  • Coles Editorial Board, Dictionary of Literary Terms, Rama Brothers, 2001.