Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gilding the Lily and Using Purple Prose

A lily is beautiful. Gold leaf is gorgeous. But a gilded lily is too much. That’s why writers have used the phrase “gilding the lily” to describe language that is so ornate that it becomes gooey and insipid. In fiction or nonfiction, this type of language is sometimes called “purple prose.”

Here’s an example:

Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.


“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.”

These samples are taken from “The Blessed Damozel” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). "The Blessed Damozel" is a poem he illustrated with a beautiful painting later in his life:

I admit it’s a little unfair to pick on this poem, since it was an amazing achievement for an eighteen-year-old, and it has some gorgeous passages. Still, Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite verse is a good illustration of writers going too far.

When Rosetti describes the Blessed Damozel’s hair as “yellow like ripe corn,” he could have used just one of the two descriptors and been just as vivid: yellow, or like ripe corn. The two together just schmear gold paint all over the flower. I realize this poem is written in metered, iambic verse, and it has to scan, but still…

And the second selection, where Rosetti invents the names of the Virgin Mary’s five handmaidens: Rosalys? Come on, Dante, give us a break. And lose the “sweet” in “sweet symphonies,” puh-leeze! Even the word “Damozel”—so precious!

I love Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings, but his language as a writer can be over-the-top.

Here’s an excerpt from Danielle Steele’s novel Toxic Bachelors:

“The sun was brilliant and hot, shining down on the deck of the motor yacht Blue Moon. She was 240 feet, eighty meters, of sleek, exquisite powerboat, remarkably designed.”

OK, Danielle, I wish I had one iota of your income from writing, but does the sun have to be “brilliant,” “hot,” and “shining”? I think we know already the sun is shining “down” on the boat, not up from underwater. And the powerboat is “sleek,” “exquisite,” and “remarkably designed”? Talk about repetition! That is deep purple prose.

What’s the harm in gilding the lily and in using purple prose? It slows down the reader. It paints the details so thickly that the image loses sharpness. It’s a matter of taste where to draw the line, but draw it we must.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

No comments:

Post a Comment