On being purple

Nabokov calls them “bravura passages.” Somebody else somewhere else says “tours-de-force,” which is French for “feats of strength.” Same thing. The “purple patches” version is Horace’s—that is to say, Quintus Horatius Flaccus’s:

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?

Ars Poetica, lines 14–21

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?

The Art of Poetry, lines 14–21

Stuffy old Horace seems to disapprove. I believe we’re misunderstanding him, though; it’s not the purple he objects to, it’s the patches, the patchiness. Purple itself is the good stuff.

In the Roman world, purple signified prestige, power, wealth: senators wore togas with a broad purple stripe, the triumphing general wore an entirely purple cloak, late in the imperial period the emperor wore a purple toga, and in Constantinople the heir to the throne, le porphyrogénète, was born in the Purple Room, lined with porphyry, or purple marble. Why? Because the dye was so very costly—and so was the marble, imported from a single quarry at an isolated site in Egypt’s eastern desert, discovered in C.E. 18 by a Roman legionary named Caius Cominius Leugas; a dedicated road, the Via Porphyrites, was constructed from the quarry westward to the Nile, dotted with specially dug wells to make the journey survivable. As for the dye, the famous Tyrian purple, the color of “clotted blood” when pure (it was often adulterated with cheaper dyes to produce a violet color), its extraction required vast numbers of snails and substantial labor, some twelve thousand carcasses of Murex brandaris yielding no more than a gram and a half of the pure dye, enough to tint the trim of a single garment. Pliny the Elder described the production of Tyrian purple in his Natural History:

The most favourable season for taking these [shellfish] is after the rising of the Dog-star, or else before spring; for when they have once discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency: this, however, is a fact unknown in the dyers’ workshops, although it is a point of primary importance. After it is taken, the vein [i.e. hypobranchial gland] is extracted, which we have previously spoken of, to which it is requisite to add salt, a sextarius [about 20 fl. oz.] about to every hundred pounds of juice. It is sufficient to leave them to steep for a period of three days, and no more, for the fresher they are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil in vessels of tin [or lead], and every hundred amphorae ought to be boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, by the application of a moderate heat; for which purpose the vessel is placed at the end of a long funnel, which communicates with the furnace; while thus boiling, the liquor is skimmed from time to time, and with it the flesh, which necessarily adheres to the veins. About the tenth day, generally, the whole contents of the cauldron are in a liquefied state, upon which a fleece, from which the grease has been cleansed, is plunged into it by way of making trial; but until such time as the colour is found to satisfy the wishes of those preparing it, the liquor is still kept on the boil. The tint that inclines to red is looked upon as inferior to that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to lie in soak for five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until it has fully imbibed the colour.

The Natural History, §62: “The Natural History of Fishes”

Oh, sorry, where was I? I’m so easily distracted.

Purple prose! That’s right.

I suppose if you can’t do it, or can’t sustain it, yourself, you might well consider it a vice. But let’s listen in on Mr. William H. Gass being not merely purple, but blue:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentees of Heaven (in Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that’s empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky’s turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese. . . the pedantic, indecent, and censorious. . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it’s stood for fidelity. 

On Being Blue, pp. 1–2

Thus the first sentence (the ellipses are Gass’s, not mine). If that sentence doesn’t leave you breathless with delight, well—what’s to be done with you? And in this case the writing, this higher conjuration, goes on for a lot longer, an entire (brief) book, in fact. It takes work for the reader to keep up, and some readers, I suppose, might complain—but of what, exactly? Certainly not of an ungenerous author. When such writing’s successfully sustained, the strain of reading at so continually high a pitch is tiring. So take a rest. Get some sleep. Books are patient creatures; good books throw prizes at the reader, who needs only to reach out a little to catch them; and great books heap treasures up, up above one’s head, try not to drown in them.

It seems to me that what’s faulted as purple prose is better called simply bad prose; that purple may curdle, that prose can be, and often is, bad is no serious charge—authors might fail at all kinds of efforts and effects, and frequently do. Failure is no real vice. This is why your pencil has an eraser on one end, which usually wears out sooner than the lead, and why your computer keyboard has a DELETE key. Some have two. Surely to make no effort at all is a worse fault; mass-extruded styrofoam prose (or verse, for that matter) is tedious stuff. Give it some life, give it some color!

Now, and finally, I must touch on the subject of pretension, for that is the most common charge against the purple pen. But to pretend is to lie, and therefore the fault is falsehood, not highly colored prose qua prose. Q., we may fairly say, E.D.