History of Literature

John Lyly


John Lyly

English writer

born 1554?, Kent, Eng.
died November 1606, London

author considered to be the first English prose stylist to leave an enduring impression upon the language. As a playwright he also contributed to the development of prose dialogue in English comedy.

Lyly was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, and went to London about 1576. There he gained fame with the publication of two prose romances, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and His England (1580), which together made him the most fashionable English writer of the 1580s. Euphues is a romantic intrigue told in letters interspersed with general discussions on such topics as religion, love, and epistolary style. Lyly’s preoccupation with the exact arrangement and selection of words, his frequent use of similes drawn from classical mythology, and his artificial and excessively elegant prose inspired a short-lived Elizabethan literary style called “euphuism.” The Euphues novels introduced a new concern with form into English prose.

After 1580 Lyly devoted himself almost entirely to writing comedies. In 1583 he gained control of the first Blackfriars Theatre, in which his earliest plays, Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, were produced. All of Lyly’s comedies except The Woman in the Moon were presented by the Children of Paul’s, a children’s company that was periodically favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The performance dates of his plays are as follows: Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, 1583–84; Gallathea, 1585–88; Endimion, 1588; Midas, 1589; Love’s Metamorphosis, 1590; Mother Bombie, 1590; and The Woman in the Moon, 1595. All but one of these are in prose. The finest is considered to be Endimion, which some critics hold a masterpiece.

Lyly’s comedies mark an enormous advance upon those of his predecessors in English drama. Their plots are drawn from classical mythology and legend, and their characters engage in euphuistic speeches redolent of Renaissance pedantry; but the charm and wit of the dialogues and the light and skillful construction of the plots set standards that younger and more gifted dramatists could not ignore.

Lyly’s popularity waned with the rise of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, and his appeals to Queen Elizabeth for financial relief went unheeded. He had hoped to succeed Edmund Tilney in the court post of Master of the Revels, but Tilney outlived him, and Lyly died a poor and bitter man.



Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit

John Lyly


Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit was published during the reign of Elizabeth I, for the consumption of a legendarily cultured and leisured audience of courtiers and nobility. While it is not exactly a novel, it has the general outline, as well as some of the features of what would later become the novel form. Though hardly read today, the text was significant enough to conjure an addition to the English lexicon in the word "euphuism," which means an affected elegance or overwroughtness in language.
Euphues is relentless in its display of verbal affectation, comprising a sort of ludicrous handbook of grand expressions and apothegms. The plot is negligible in its moralizing twists and countertwists, more or less just a frame over which the multitude of polite phrases is draped. What makes Euphues fascinating for the non-specialist reader is its great dexterity in handling and varying the conventional exempla of courtly speech. This dexterity smothers the impulse for any type of genuine literary originality—a quality which would later be prized as the single most important criterion of great literature. This is the sort of verbal ostentation and intricacy that would come to be most detested both by the pious authors of the Protestant Reformation and by Romantics such as Samuel Coleridge, for whom skill in the manipulation of conceits stood as evidence of either a corrupted intelligence or a heart cynically detached from its pen. Lyly himself was quite aware of these objections, and unruffled enough by them to acknowledge them in advance: "honnie taken excessiuelye cloyeth the stomacke though it be honnie," he once wrote. What he was canny enough to perceive is that the ruling class enjoys nothing so much as excessive consumption.



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