Overview of Baroque Style in English Prose and Poetry

Definition and Examples

A Baroque style room

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In literary studies and rhetoric, a style of writing that is extravagant, heavily ornamented, and/or bizarre. A term more commonly used to characterize the visual arts and music, baroque (sometimes capitalized) can also refer to a highly ornate style of prose or poetry.


From the Portuguese barroco "imperfect pearl"

Examples and Observations:

"Today the word [baroque] is applied to any creation that is exceedingly ornate, intricate, or elaborate. Saying a politician delivered a baroque speech wouldn't necessarily be a compliment." (Elizabeth Webber and Mike Feinsilber, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Allusions. Merriam-Webster, 1999)

Characteristics of Baroque Literary Style

"Baroque literary style is generally marked by rhetorical sophistication, excess, and play. Self-consciously remaking and thus critiquing the rhetoric and poetics of the Petrarchan, pastoral, Senecan, and epic traditions, baroque writers challenge conventional notions of decorum by using and abusing such tropes and figures as metaphor, hyperbole, paradox, anaphora, hyperbaton, hypotaxis and parataxis, paronomasia, and oxymoron. Producing copia and variety (varietas) is valued, as is the cultivation of concordia discors and antithesis--strategies often culminating in allegory or the conceit."
(The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. by Roland Green et al. Princeton University Press, 2012)

Cautionary Notes to Writers

  • "Very skilled writers will sometimes use baroque prose to good effect, but even among successful literary authors, the vast majority avoid flowery writing. Writing is not like figure skating, where flashier tricks are required to move up in competition. Ornate prose is an idiosyncrasy of certain writers rather than a pinnacle all writers are working toward." (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel. HarperCollins, 2008)
  • "[B]aroque prose demands tremendous rigor from the writer. If you stuff a sentence, you must know how to do so with complementary ingredients--ideas that do not compete but play off one another. Above all, as you edit, concentrate on determining when enough is enough." (Susan Bell, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. W.W. Norton, 2007)

Baroque Journalism

"When Walter Brookins flew a Wright plane from Chicago to Spingfield in 1910, a writer for the Chicago Record Herald reported that the plane drew out great crowds at every town along the way ... In baroque prose that captured the excitement of an era, he wrote:

The sky-gazers looked on in astonishment as the great artificial bird bore down the heavens. . . Wonderment, surprise, absorption were written on every visage . . . a machine of travel that combined the speed of the locomotive with the comfort of the automobile, and in addition, sped through an element until now navigated only by the feathered kind. It was, in truth, the poetry of motion, and its appeal to the imagination was evident in every upturned face."

(Roger E. Bilstein, Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, 3rd ed. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

The Baroque Period

"Students of literature may encounter the term [baroque] (in its older English sense) applied unfavorably to a writer's literary style; or they may read of the baroque period or 'Age of Baroque' (late 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries); or they may find it applied descriptively and respectfully to certain stylistic features of the baroque period. Thus, the broken rhythms of [John] Donne's verse and the verbal subtleties of the English metaphysical poets have been called baroque elements. . . . 'Baroque Age' is often used to designate the period between 1580 and 1680 in the literature of Western Europe, between the decline of the Renaissance and the rise of the Enlightenment."​ (William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 10th ed. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006)

René Wellek on Baroque Clichés

  • "One must, at least, admit that stylistic devices can be imitated very successfully and that their possible original expressive function can disappear. They can become, as they did frequently in the Baroque, mere empty husks, decorative tricks, craftsman's clichés...
  • "If I seem to end on a negative note, unconvinced that we can define Baroque either in terms of stylistic devices or a particular worldview or even a peculiar relationship of style and belief, I would not like to be understood as offering a parallel to Arthur Lovejoy's paper on the 'Discrimination of Romanticisms.' I hope that baroque is not quite in the position of 'romantic' and that we do not have to conclude that it has 'come to mean so many things, that by itself, it means nothing...'
    "Whatever the defects of the term baroque, it is a term which prepares for synthesis, draws our minds away from the mere accumulation of observations and facts, and paves the way for a future history of literature as a fine art."
    (René Wellek, "The Concept of Baroque in Literary Scholarship," 1946, rev. 1963; rpt. in Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest, ed. by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup. Duke University Press, 2010)

The Lighter Side of Baroque

Mr. Schidtler: Now can anyone give me an example of a Baroque writer?
Justin Cammy: Oh, sir.​​
Mr. Schidtler: Mm-hm?
Justin Cammy: I thought all writers were broke.
("Literature." You Can't Do That on Television, 1985)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Overview of Baroque Style in English Prose and Poetry." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/baroque-prose-style-1689021. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Overview of Baroque Style in English Prose and Poetry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/baroque-prose-style-1689021 Nordquist, Richard. "Overview of Baroque Style in English Prose and Poetry." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/baroque-prose-style-1689021 (accessed March 22, 2023).