In Defense of Lavender-Tinted Prose

purple flower

Purple prose, have you heard of it? I kept reading the term on writing blogs and didn’t recognize the reference. A quick Google search and now I am “in the know.”

Apparently, the expression was coined as early as the 16th century and refers to flowery, overly descriptive writing, the type of writing that throws you out of the story and draws attention to the writing itself. Overusing adverbs and adjectives will get you a purple ribbon too.

Now I’m not going to shout praises for self indulgent, over the top writing, but I am a fan of the paler versions. Passages that make me pause and say, ooooh that’s lovely, could be considered lavender-tinted cousins. It might be a turn of phrase so descriptive and rich in evoking a mood I stop and read it again. Or an entire paragraph worthy of being read aloud because it sounds so good.

Let me give you an example, from F . Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,”His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

“The juxtaposition of God with a romping mind pulls me out of the story, but I don’t mind, because now I’ve slowed down enough to enjoy the tuning fork metaphor and an unforgettable first kiss.

Thoreau is always good for a read aloud. Try this excerpt from Walden on for size.

“I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants.”

There’s even a touch of alliteration in the “ground glass,” but again, I’m not complaining because I love to speak this passage. It pleases my ear and mind to say “perennial waveless serenity reigns” even though my spell check function insists the word “waveless” is illegitimate.

I can’t help it; beige prose doesn’t do it for me. What’s the point of all those delicious words if writers aren’t going to use them? On occasion, I want to meander through a book and smell those flowery phrases. So now that I’ve got a hankering for some flamboyant, supercilious, evocative, euphoric writing. Care to share some of your favorite purple-tinted passages?

Photograph © Chris Bence

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Lavender-Tinted Prose

  1. Thanks to all for your lavender passages. You’ve contributed some great examples. Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite YA authors.

  2. Love Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. There’s some good YA descriptive passages out there too. Have any of you read Kate DiCamillo?

    “I thought about my mama. Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep on feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. Time after time, my mind kept going to that empty spot where I felt like she should be.” –Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo (c.2000, Candlewick Press), p.132

  3. “The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,—and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!” Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

  4. SydneyJ. you are so very sweet. I have another one to share, let me know what you think…

    “Ethan Frome drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero. He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it . . . the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.”

    From Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  5. How about “I might have laughed, but can’t remember that part, too caught up in the glow of her skin and her mountain river eyes.”? Love that.

    K. E. Blaski, Knowing

  6. It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled. Shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the treetops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half mist and half rain, which floated downward rather than fell, making a soft rustling patter among the millions of needles.

    Phillip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass: His Dark Materials

  7. I always liked this one. I don’t know if it qualifies as purple prose, but the author writes the word MAD four times and the word BURN three times in the same sentence. And it is a really long sentence.

    “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww'”– On the Road–Jack Kerouac

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