Regular readers of this blog will know by now that you will have to search long and hard for anything that might resemble a purple patch. Indeed, many critics contend that a purple patch is something to avoid in any literary endeavour as it denotes an over-written passage in which the writer has strained too hard to achieve their effect. It is something out of the ordinary in comparison with the rest of the writer’s output. Its usage these days has been extended to indicate a period of success or outstanding achievement, particularly in a sporting context.
Where does it come from and why purple?
The starting point in our survey is Ars Poetica, written by the Roman poet, Horace to give him his Anglicised name, in around 20 BCE. In the opening passages to his work he compares and contrasts his style of writing with those of his contemporaries. He notes “weighty openings and grand declarations often/ have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam/ far and wide…There’s no place for them here.” This is the earliest reference to a purple patch, or purpureus pannus as Horace wrote it, in a literary context.
In Roman times, purple was the colour associated with those in power, adopted by emperors and magistrates. The dye to create the colour came from the mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail and was highly prized and expensive. To associate a piece of writing with this rare colour was to indicate that it was out of the ordinary, exceptional, special.
The survival of pagan Roman literature through the periods of Christian ascendancy was a hit and miss affair until their value as works of art was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Ars Poetica was one that made it through the dark centuries in reasonably good shape and formed part of the required reading matter of an educated chap and the occasional chapess. Unusually for the 16th century, Ann Boleyn insisted that he daughter, Elizabeth, obtained “knowledge of all tounges, as Hebrue, Greeke, Latyne, Italian, Spanishe, Frenche.” Indeed, Queen Bess, as she became, developed into a noted Latin scholar.
What better way to keep your Latin up to scratch after you have dealt with the affairs of state than to translate one of the classical masterpieces into English? In 1598 she turned her hand to the Ars Poetica, rendering our passage thus; “oft to beginnings graue and shewes of great is sowed a purple pace, one or more for vewe.” This is the earliest example of the phrase to have survived in English but given the translator it may be a reflection of her status rather than being the first genuine usage.
The early 18th century was a disputatious period when wits and political rivals would pen furious pamphlets to either attack their opponents or to promote their cause. One such was Dr Charles Davenant, a cousin of Jonathan Swift, who invented a character called Tom Double to espouse anti-Whig sentiment. But then, to the dismay of Swift and his chums, Devanant had a political volte-face, prompting his friends to publish, in 1704, The True Tom Double.
Within its pages is a discussion of literary styles. The prevailing taste was for a style which was even, rather than one which had the occasional splash of literary brilliance. “All a man writes should be proportion’d Even and of a piece; and one Part of the Work should not so far outshine, as to Obscure and Darken the Other. The Purple Patches he claps upon his Course Style, make it seem much Courser than it is.”
It seems that the use of purple patch in a context other than literary was a much later phenomenon, perhaps around the turn of the 20th century. The Westminster Budget used it, in October 1900, to denote something exceptional or truly noteworthy; “true, it is hardly to be counted a purple patch of history…”