‘Purple’ in Venus and Adonis

Six random observations about ‘purple’ in ‘Venus and Adonis’:

1. The word occurs three times in the poem, each time in conjunction with Adonis, and each time with a mention of, or reference to, the colors red or white, or both together. (The colors red and white are mentioned with great frequency and may be found listed here.)

2. In the first mention, a purple sun is looking down on ‘rosy cheeked’ Adonis; in the second, purple blood from the wound of Adonis is flowing onto his ‘lily white skin’; in the third, a purple flower has sprung up in the place of Adonis, which has white petals dappled with red. Purple thus appears first with red, then with white, and finally with red and white together.

3. A corollary to the foregoing is that each time purple is mentioned, the ‘red and/or white’ term that it is mentioned with is associated with a flower: in the first instance, ‘rosy cheeked’; in the second, ‘lily white’; in the third, “purple flower” (with red and white leaves).

4. In chromatics, purple is composed of the colors red and blue, and in one part of the text you perhaps see this alluded to: for Adonis is said to give the ‘gloss’ to the rose and the scent to violet. But Adonis, as we’ve said, is associated with purple; while the rose is associated with red, and the violet with blue. (The violet is mentioned only twice in the poem and in the first instance it is called ‘blue-viened’, which may also be the poem’s only mention of blue). Thus, the un-named purple flower of the poem’s close, when decocted to its ‘primary flowers’, so to speak, appears to be comprised of the red rose and blue violet. [It combines them.]

5. Related, if blue and red may be said to equal purple, there is also a sense in which purple and white may be said to equal red: for if purple is the color of blood, and white the color of skin, and red the color of blush; and if, further, blushing is the color of blood seen through the skin; then it may be said also that in this certain sense purple plus white equals red. [Purple appears red when seen through the skin.]

6. Thus far I’ve only come across one other purple flower in Shakespeare, the ‘Long purples’ of Hamlet, which are among those Ophelia was found carrying when she died. ‘Long purple’ is said to be the common name for the purple orchid and seems to be used as a phallic/ death symbol in the context of that play.

Update. See sonnet [99] for three roses: one white, one red, one niether white nor red; a pale lily; and a purple violet. Here, the first rose is red with shame, the second white with despair and the third absorbs these colors and steals also for itself the beloved’s breath, for which crime it earns itself a canker and death. The violet in this sonnet is also said to have taken its fragrance from the beloved, as was also the case in Venus and Adonis, although there the rose had not to do with the scent of the beloved; rather, it was the rose’s gloss that had come from him.


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