Category Archives: purple prose

“He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp of his wrist…”

How, oh how, to express the magnificence and power of Othello before Iago undermined it all and brought him low? Obviously one must marshal all the strong images at one’s command.

Or not quite at one’s command.

The sentence begins forcefully enough: “He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp…” And then Othello loses a lot of majesty when he wraps that wrist of his around the island. Even as figurative language this is bizarre.

But she goes on:

“He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp of his wrist that clenched with strength and fortitude.”

So the wrist is not merely wrapped; it’s clenched. Now, fists can clench; and muscles can clench—a tightening that, in the hand, produces a clenched fist and in the face a clenched jaw. But can wrists actually clench, even if the muscles in the wrist are clenched? Clench: “to clinch [meaning, in one sense, ‘to hold fast or firmly’].” “Clinch” is a transitive verb, which means you have to clinch something, just as in this usage the wrist would have to clench something. “Clench” can also mean “to hold fast, clutch.” Again, the clencher needs an object. And it can mean “to set or hold tightly,” as clenched teeth: the clencher clenched.

Well, of course the verb has an object—or. more correctly, at least something to clench—way back there before the prepositions and relative pronouns: the island of Cyprus. The clenching is what makes the grasp.

But what held the island of Cyprus—what clenched, or clenched on, it? That wrist. I think there are limits to how far closed a wrist can actually bend, but the island of Cyprus is pretty big. On the other hand (sorry!), I doubt someone could securely hold the whole island just by wrapping his wrist around part of it: a rock, for instance, or a sapling.

Even if the wrist is clenching “with strength and fortitude,” it has its limits.

This sentence is definitely one place where less would be more. “The island of Cyprus was firmly in his control.” Why not?

I wept to myself, “She can’t stop!”

Quietly I ran lines through many words and changed one: “He had the island of Cyprus in his grasp.” And in the margin I wrote “overwritten.” She never asked me what I meant. I hope she knew, because this kind of overwrought prose will never impress her readers as she so clearly wants to impress them.

The basic picture is just wrong, comically wrong. Embellish it as she will, it will just make them laugh.

“It left my blood boiled in cold water.”

Another student trying to express extreme emotion.

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been reading and listening today as people try to put their reactions to the latest senseless slaughter into words; I’ve been trying to express my own reactions too. Our vocabulary of horror and outrage is too small, and our culture has exploited it too often to hype fairly trivial things; language is less adequate than ever. (When we hear this kind of exchange every day—”Is there any ketchup?” “Yeah, here.” “Awesome”—how to describe the Grand Canyon, a major tornado, or God? When passing a healthcare bill is equated with the Holocaust, how can we think about the real Holocaust? When someone beholds a redecorated rec room and says “Oh My GOD!” how will she react to something worthy of such a powerful invocation?)

I don’t remember what event or literary situation or vision occasioned this student’s effort at strong language, but for a reader like me he achieved exactly the opposite of what he was trying for: he got helpless laughter.

Of course I knew what he meant. He was reaching into his brain for a figure of speech and accidentally grabbed parts of two, rather than one intact one. “It made my blood boil”—I was filled with rage.  “It made my blood run cold”—I was filled with a chilling horror.  He jams those two opposite figures of speech into one impossibility: a boiling coldness. The discordia concors, or paradox, so popular with Renaissance poets (“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?” asks Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that the lover simultaneously freezes and burns with passion is seemingly invoked here. “I freeze, I burn,” indeed.

But that isn’t actually what he’s saying. He’s saying that his blood was boiled in cold water. Sort of the opposite of the frozen dinners that come in pouches, ready for immersion in boiling water to become a delectable treat: here perhaps the blood is in a bag and, by some miracle, immersed in cold water in order to boil. Maybe the water has some dry ice in it and will bubble and steam?

No, this would not have worked in my physics lab when I was a student, and it really doesn’t work on my student’s paper now.

I can certainly sympathize with his effort to express, his inability to express, an emotion—rage, most likely, not love!—that has filled him and shaken him. I celebrate his ability to feel emotion so strongly.

And I also sympathize that his teacher was ultimately unable to approve the wording as well as the emotion. Still, there it is.

“Upon reading this, a strong sense of irony bestows itself upon the reader.”

Here’s another one of those busy non-actors.

I like the idea of a “strong sense of irony”—the whole phrase suggests spinach. What sense of irony wouldn’t be strong, being mostly iron? Perhaps it’s what inflated Popeye’s biceps whenever he glugged down a can of spinach (and canning–isn’t that a mean thing to do to a delicious, green, and leafy vegetable? But I digress…).

This sense of irony is so strong that it is capable of action. First it reads something (there’s that introductory participial phrase!); then it “bestows itself” upon “the reader”—who is someone else, or perhaps itself!

According to Webster, “bestow” can mean “put to use,” as  someone who “bestows his spare time on study”—I have to admit, I have never seen it used in that sense.

It can mean “to stow” or “to house or temporarily put up”: I will bestow my guests in a nearby motel? My childhood books are bestowed in the attic? I have never heard these uses either.

The fourth definition Webster’s lists is “to convey as a gift (with on or upon).” Now, this is the one I am familiar with, and the one my student seems to mean, since she uses “upon” with it. So, a strong sense of irony gives itself to the reader as a gift.

But in what way is a sense of irony, meaning a feeling of irony coming from an outside source (rather than a learned or inherent ironical point of view), a present? For certain writers and comedians it certainly is a gift, but only in the sense of talent or blessing, not in the sense of something that can be gift-wrapped, beribboned, and bestowed.

In a way, my student has written a rather creepy sentence, with irony coming in through the window like a pungent fog and settling itself generously on the innocent reader as he pores over his book. What did the fog itself read, to give it the inspiration to visit itself on someone (or, if it is itself the reader, then on itself!) that way?

That’s the kind of thing that happens when a student seeking eloquence reaches into the lexicon grab-bag: what she comes up with may not fit what she already has. Perhaps she wanted to say that the passage, or the piece, was ironic; perhaps she meant that the reader realized the irony of the passage only gradually (we didn’t read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but this is often the experience of readers of that wonderful piece of satire). But the word she chose doesn’t work for the sentence she wanted to write. I do love a student’s desire to write with a more sophisticated and spirited vocabulary, but I wish such students would take a closer look at the words they press into service—and at other, more “ordinary,” words that might serve better.

Surely some purple prose got to be that color by being beaten up. Would that be black-and-blue prose?

“She has a raging fire in her belly…”

So begins a student attempt, evidently, at purple prose. A mere fire in the belly is not enough for this character: it is raging. That’s okay by me. I like a few bits of imagery (preferably not contrite).

Actually, maybe this is an example of contrite imagery, since my writer goes on:

“She has a raging fire in her belly. The problem is that she hasn’t found anything that can ignite that fire.”

Can an unignited fire be called a fire at all? Maybe my student means she has some nice dry kindling in her belly but can’t find a spark to ignite it. That’s actually a pretty poignant idea, all that potential passion with nothing to bring it to life. Kind of like my composition class at 8 a.m.

I think, though, that the image isn’t meant to be that interesting. I think this is one more student who can’t manage the word “quench,” the word he should have used but seems not to have thought of.

When students do use this word, they tend to use it strangely—for example, in this description of King Lear: “No one could satisfy his quench for flattery.” How “quench his thirst” became “satisfy his quench” I cannot imagine. (I have never never, by the way, seen a student use “slake.”)

Ah, well, anyway, the advice for the day is, if you have a raging fire in your belly, do try to ignite it. If you have a raging fire in your kitchen, by all means quench it.

“Their lips embrace in a passionate kiss.”

Up early to use the electricity while it lasts, I am drawn to expressions of passion as Irene rages around outside, and this one is probably my favorite.

There are verbs that would make this sentence more correct, but none that would make it more wondrous to imagine. Lovers in movies could learn something here: a little less of the chin-eating, a lot more of the embracing lips, please!

Here’s another scene I’d like to see, adoration carried to the extreme: “Men should be at the females’ feet, and kiss them until they melt.” Any clarification of those pronouns would ruin the sentence. I don’t care who or what is melting: this is passion.

And I don’t know if these scenes are the result of true love, or just exposure to too many “pornogrophic pictures.”

And I don’t care.

I know what these writers meant, but I far prefer what they wrote.