Lyly, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))
John Lyly c. 1554–1606
Prose author and dramatist.
Chiefly remembered for his Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580), the latter of which is often considered the first English novel, Lyly was an Elizabethan dramatist who composed witty and highly polished plays aimed at a sophisticated audience. His earliest works, the two parts of Euphues, gave the name to the highly elaborate and elegant prose style known as euphuism and inaugurated a short-lived but influential vogue for writings in this mode, to be supplanted in the late 1580s by the popularity of Philip Sidney's style in his Arcadia. Lyly's dramas, like his prose works, are characterized by rich rhetorical ornamentation and complex structures of balanced antitheses, images, proverbs, and allusions. With plots borrowed from the classics but with personalities recognizable in their day, Lyly's plays are considered to have set new standards for light comedy and to have raised English drama from a crude to a sophisticated level.
Lyly was born in Kent, England, around 1554. His grandfather was the accomplished and famous grammarian William Lyly. Lyly probably received his early education at the King's School at Canterbury, which his brothers attended, and entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in the early 1570s. He appears to have been a serious student at Oxford but also seems to have gained a reputation as a wit and a carouser. He received a degree from the University of Oxford in 1573, followed by another degree in 1575. In 1578 Lyly published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. This and its sequel were very successful; Euphues went through five editions in rapid succession and Euphues and His England went through four editions in its first year. Soon after receiving yet another degree, this time from Cambridge, Lyly entered the household of Queen Elizabeth's Lord High Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Although this connection was advantageous for Lyly, his hope for a career at court was never realized. Devoting his talents almost exclusively to comedy, he became a partner in the Blackfriars theater, and in 1583 he married Beatrice Browne, a member of an influential family. Lyly's first plays, Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, were both produced at the Blackfriars in 1583-84. Gallathea (finished between 1585 and 1588) was also originally intended for performance at Blackfriars, but the playhouse closed in 1584 and the play did not receive its first staging until 1588. Lyly next became associated with the a troupe of professional boy actors (Children of St. Paul's), and along with this company produced four additional plays: Endimion, The Man in the Moone (1588), Loves Metamorphosis (c. 1588-90), Mother Bombie (c. 1589-90), and Midas (1588-90). Lyly was also elected to serve as a Member of Parliament and did so several times, the first time in 1589. It was around this time that he composed his last dramatic work, his only play not written in euphuistic prose, The Woman in the Moone (c. 1591-94), which was presented at Court. In the 1590s Lyly hoped to receive the Court appointment of Master of Revels (the Court's censor), but he had fallen out of royal favor and did not get the position. From this time on his finances were in a state of decline. He wrote petitions to Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s and 1600s asking for a reward for his services, but Elizabeth died in 1603 without having shown him any preferment. Lyly died in 1606.
The word "euphues" comes from the Greek word meaning "well-bred," and the two parts of Euphues are full of advice and lectures on how gentlemen and gentlewomen ought to behave in a graceful manner. There is much critical debate about whether Lyly meant for these works to be taken seriously or as satire. In keeping with the euphuistic mode, Lyly's plays feature highly stylized scenes organized as series of debates between antitheses. Campaspe examines the problem of the individual in the state, as Alexander, the conqueror of Thebes, falls in love with Campaspe, one of his prisoners. Alexander is torn between his love and his duty to his country. This is allied in the play to a number of related questions, such as the nature of the king's private and public selves, the relationship between monarch and subject, and the individual's responsibility to obey authority. Sapho and Plao similarly revolves around a love between a person of high rank and one of low status. In this drama Queen Sapho falls in love with the beautiful ferryman Phao. The play contrasts chastity and eroticism, simplicity and complexity, and life at court with both an intellectual life and a humble existence. In Endimion Lyly again focuses on love and passion, but this play, perhaps the author's most complex, presents a number of pairs of lovers. Within this framework Lyly explores a variety of oppositions, including love versus friendship and art against nature. Endimion is noteworthy among Lyly's plays for its more involved action and greater depth of characterization. The lyrics found in some of Lyly's comedies are not present in the earliest editions and there also has long been debate about whether Lyly wrote them himself.
The vogue of euphuism passed quickly, and even within Lyly's own lifetime it became the object of satire. Lyly's influence on his fellow dramatists, however, was significant. Robert Greene adapted Campaspe—which had been written for an aristocratic audience—for the popular stage. Ben Jonson admired Lyly's work, and William Shakespeare incorporated elements of Lyly's plays into such comedies as As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost, and Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, by the middle of the seventeenth century Lyly's plays fell into complete neglect. It was not until 1962 and the publication of G. K. Hunter's John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier, that significant interest in his work was revived. Critics since that time have seen Lyly's plays not merely as assemblages of brilliant images and rhetorical flourishes, but as carefully elaborated demonstrations of a worldview based on paradox, opposition, and duality. The very works that made Lyly the most popular writer in England for some years, Euphues and Euphues and His England, have damaged Lyly's standing in the present; modern critics have tended to value his dramas more highly than his prose. Theodore L. Steinberg has written that "John Lyly's reputation, it seems, has suffered unduly for his having written Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a work which is often regarded as a kind of aberration, interesting in its manipulations of the English language and important in its influence on contemporary literature but unimportant in itself as a work of literature." C. S. Lewis has called Euphues Lyly's "fatal success," "a diversion of the author from his true path, which by its unfortunate celebrity confuses our impression of his genius."
Euphues. The Anatomy of Wit (prose) 1578
Euphues and His England (prose) 1580
Campaspe (drama) 1583-84
Sapho and Phao (drama) 1583-84
Gallathea (drama) c. 1585-88
Loves Metamorphosis (drama) c. 1588-90
Mother Bombie (drama) c. 1588-90
Endimion, The Man in the Moone (drama) 1588
Midas (drama) 1589-90
Pappe with an Hatchet (prose) 1589
The Woman in the Moone (drama) c. 1591-94
Plays of John Lyly (dramas) 1988
The Complete Works of John Lyly (prose and dramas) 1993
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SOURCE: "Lyly and His Euphues" in The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare, T. Fisher Unwin, 1890, pp. 103-05.
[In the following excerpt, Jusserand explores Lyly's success and credits it to his "bad style," earnest sermonizing, and his appeal to female readers—writing eloquently of the "knowledge of the heart of woman."]
Lyly and His Euphues.
The romance which, at this period, received a new life, and was to come nearer to our novels than anything that had gone before, has many traits in common with the fanciful style of the architecture, costume, and conversation described above. What have we to do, thought men, with things practical, convenient, or of ordinary use? We wish for nothing but what is brilliant, unexpected, extraordinary. What is the good of setting down in writing the incidents of commonplace lives? Are they not sufficiently known to us? does not their triviality sadden us enough every day? If we are told stories of imaginary lives, let them at least be dissimilar from our own; let them offer unforeseen incidents; let the author be free to turn aside from reality provided that he leaves the trivial and the ordinary. Let him lead us to Verona, Athens, into Arcadia, where he will, but as far as possible from Fleet Street! And if by ill-luck he sets foot in Fleet Street, let him at least speak the language of Arcadia!
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SOURCE: "Introductory Essay," in The Complete Works of John Lyly, Oxford University Press, Ely House, London, 1902, pp. 135-64.
[In the following excerpt, Bond praises Lyly for his constant attention to form, and examines his writing style, its sources, and its influence on Shakespeare and other writers.]
…Euphuism,1 the characteristics and origin of which have just been indicated, is important, not because it eminently hit the taste of its day, but because it is, if not the earliest, yet the first thorough and consistent attempt in English Literature to practise prose as an art; the first clearly-defined arch in the bridge that spans the gulf between the rambling obscurities of Chaucerian prose, such as that of the unknown author of The Testament of Love, and the lucid nervous paragraphs of our own essayists. Preceding prose had either paid little attention to form, or, being translation, had been hampered by its original, or else had attained almost by accident to a clarity but partial and half-conscious. Bishop Pecock's Repressor (c. 1450) may boast some attention to the period: More's Life of Edward V (written c. 1513, first printed 1557) has been praised by Hallam as 'the first example of good English language, pure and perspicuous, well chosen without vulgarisms or pedantry': Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, printed in England in 1536, the year in which...
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SOURCE: John Lyly, Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., 1970, pp. 52-84.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1905, Wilson explains the importance of Euphues in literary history, discussing Lyly's emphasis on diction, precision, and lucidity; the significance of Lyly's insistence that Euphues and His England was written "for the eyes of ladies"; and the reasons that, although euphuism itself failed, its influence on English prose was profound.]
The position of Euphuism in the history of English prose.
… A few words remain to be said about this literary curiosity, by way of assigning a place to it in the history of our prose. To do so with any scientific precision is impossible, but there are many points of no small significance in this connexion, which should not be passed over.
English prose at the beginning of the 16th century, that is before the new learning had become a power in the land, though it had not yet been employed for artistic purposes, was already an important part of our literature, and possessed a quality which no national prose had exhibited since the days of Greece, the quality of popularity.1 This popularity, which arose from the fact that French and Latin had for so long been the language of the ruling section of the community, is still the distinction which marks off our prose from that of...
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SOURCE: "John Lyly," in The Greek Romances in Elizabethan Prose Fiction, The Columbia University Press, 1912, pp. 248-56.
[In the following excerpt, Wolff traces Lyly's source for Euphues to Giovanni Boccaccio's Tito and Gisippo, and then continues his exploration of Lyly's derivations.]
The connection between Lyly and Greek Romance rests partly upon proof, and partly upon probable conjecture. There is proof that the plot of "Euphues" is derived from Boccaccio's tale of "Tito and Gisippo" (Decam., X. 8). There is probable conjecture, by such authorities as Wilhelm Grimm, Erwin Rohde, and Gaston Paris, that Boccaccio's tale is indebted to a Greek original. This indebtedness may be secondary, by way of the Old French poem "Athis et Prophilias," which is known to be one of the sources of "Tito and Gisippo" and which is believed to be derived from a late Greek Romance now lost; or it may be primary,—several of Boccaccio's tales (see post, p. 370) showing clearly that he was in contact with Greek fiction. But whether primary or secondary, the transmission of specific elements from Greek Romance to Boccaccio, and from Boccaccio to Lyly, is almost certain.
From Boccaccio Lyly takes not only narrative material, but narrative technique as well: the division of similar material into similar stages and scenes—its "articulation";...
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SOURCE: "Introduction—The Sources of the Euphuistic Rhetoric," in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, Euphues & His England by John Lyly, edited by Morris William Croll and Harry clemons, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1916, pp. XV-LXIV.
[In the following excerpt, Croll examines the main characteristics of euphuism, particularly its use of sound patterns, and offers background on the humanistic movement during Lyly's era.]
What is Euphuism?
The form of the Euphuistic rhetoric was finally defined, after much debate, by Landmann in a well-known paper,1 and has since been made familiar by Child's excellent résumé of the controversy,2 by Bond's edition of Lyly's works,3 and by Feuillerat's recent volume.4 It is impossible and unnecessary to repeat the details of these descriptions here. The object of the present discussion is to re-open the question of the ultimate origins of the Euphuistic rhetoric; and for this purpose what is most needed is a general statement which will serve to isolate the essential and typical character of the style in question.
Such a statement cannot well be made, even now, without the danger of arousing controversy. But the simplest and safest form of the definition is that Euphuism is a style characterized by the figures known in ancient and medieval rhetoric as...
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SOURCE: "The Humanist as Man of Letters: John Lyly," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1923, 8-35.
[In the following excerpt, Wolff considers the various influences on Euphues, including Puritanism. The critic downplays Lyly's importance as an influence on later writers, but praises his comedies.]
We all remember Lyly very much as Mr. Brooke remembered human perfectibility or Adam Smith. We "went in for that at one time", and from some college Survey of English Literature we have preserved a dim reminiscence of the Euphuist and the dramatist—the writer of an impossible style soon displaced in vogue by that other impossible style of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, and the writer of plays soon eclipsed by the plays of Shakespeare. But we are not permitted to remain in this peaceful vagueness of mind. From time to time our ears are assailed by wars and the rumors of wars. We hear that Lyly reformed English prose, and anticipated Dryden; that he was Shakespeare's schoolmaster in dramatic and in lyric art; that he took Euphues, both style and matter, from a work of Antonio de Guevara, Bishop of Guadix; that he silenced the Puritan pamphleteer "Martin Marprelate"; and then we hear that he did none of these things. One scholar asserts that Euphues is autobiographical; another believes it to be a 'novelized' play; a third offers a new explanation of the court allegory in Lyly's...
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SOURCE: "John Lyly and Elizabethan Rhetoric," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 52, No. 1, 1955, pp. 149-61.
[In the following essay, King examines the formal attributes of Lyly's arguments in Euphues.]
Study of Elizabethan rhetoric often seems to balance upon two "indispensables": some sort of consideration of euphuism, based upon analysis of isolated passages in Euphues, and pejorative comment upon John Lyly. Lyly has in fact become a major whipping boy in English literature. Whipping boys are a convenience, of course. Easily distinctive examples of the stylistically poor or over-developed help us to speak with confidence about the better aspects of Elizabethan rhetorical practice. But surely it is time to wonder if Lyly has not been over-whipped. In our zeal to put him in his place, may we not be overlooking features of his rhetoric (and indeed of the rhetoric that flourished between 1570 and 1600), attention to which will get us beyond the mere analysis of isolated passages?
This question almost asks itself when one comes upon a recent and very perceptive article upon Sidney and Elizabethan rhetoric by Mr. P. Albert Duhamel, which is the point of departure for this essay.1 Duhamel's thesis is, in brief, that while Elizabethan writers had been schooled in the use of the classical topics when composing a set piece of argument upon any proposition, many of them drew upon...
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SOURCE: "The Prose Style of John Lyly," in ELH, Vol. 23, 1956, pp. 14-35.
[In the following essay, Barish contends that Lyly's novels and plays are stylistically linked by his use of parallel sequences and logicality.]
Lyly's prose style, especially that of Euphues, has been studied so often and so exhaustively in the past that further observations on it are likely to appear impertinent, especially if they attempt no radical reformulation. However, the major work of description has been complete for some decades now, and little has been added except for occasional further explorations into the literary origins of Euphuism. It may, therefore, be useful to glance once again at this familiar territory, with two objects in view: first, to try to correlate certain categories of Lyly's style with categories of meaning, and second, to restate some general principles governing all of his prose which may help to erase the sharp line customarily drawn between the style of Euphues and that of the plays.
Clarence Child and Morris Croll, whose studies of Lyly climaxed those of nineteenth century investigators like Landmann, defined Euphuism primarily as an ornamental verbal pattern, characterized by the use of the so-called "figures of sound" rather than by "figures of thought." Croll's description may serve as a basis for comment:
Euphuism is a...
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SOURCE: "Lyly," in The Elizabethan Prodigals, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 58-78.
[In the following excerpt, Helgerson analyzes the character of Euphues, whom he deems "one of the most consistently unsympathetic figures in English literature."]
In 1595, seventeen years after Euphues established his reputation, a decade after Elizabeth advised him to "aim all his courses at the Revels," John Lyly acknowledged defeat. "If your sacred Majesty think me unworthy," he wrote the Queen, "and that, after ten years tempest, [I] must at the Court suffer shipwreck of my times, my hopes, and my wits, vouchsafe in your never erring judgment some plank or rafter to waft me into a country, where, in my sad and settled devotion, I may in every corner of a thatched cottage write prayers instead of plays—prayers for your long and prosperous life—and a repentance that I have played the fool so long and yet live." Lyly's "if suggests that he had yet to reach the dead end of despair. It was, however, not far off. Two years later, in a petition to the Queen's principal secretary, Sir Robert Cecil, Lyly renewed his plea for relief, though now with no sense that the disappointment of his courtly ambition might be avoided. "I hope I shall not be used worse than an old horse who after service done hath his shoes pulled off and turned to grass, not suffered to starve in the stable. I will cast my wits in a...
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SOURCE: "Reading Euphues," in Criticism, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 103-17.
[In the following essay, Gohlke describes Euphues as an example of mannerist art, written with "deliberately obstructive qualities" which challenge its readers to interpet meanings and resolve ambiguities.]
Anyone who reads Euphues knows that it is hard, and that what makes it hard is the peculiarly obstructive nature of its style. Euphuism describes not only the manner in which the tale is written, but also the dominant form of communication within the fiction.1 What is most striking about this form of communication, moreover, is not what it most obviously conveys, but what it manages to conceal. Lyly's euphuism is based on two levels of discourse, one of which is latent or implicit. An interpretation of the tale involves first a reading of this level of discourse in the communications between figures within the fiction, and second a reading of the relation between manifest and latent content in the tale as a whole. The difficulty of reading Euphues, finally, raises more general questions about non-transparent modes of fiction and about the nature of the interpretive act.
The relation of language to action in Euphues is characteristically disproportionate. The tale may be described as a series of lengthy set speeches accompanying a few critical plot junctures. The...
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SOURCE: "Wit, Eloquence, and Wisdom in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXI, No. 3, 1984, pp. 299-324.
[In the following excerpt, McCabe describes how Lyly demonstates that Euphues's wit hinders his self-knowledge and is ultimately destructive.]
Discussing Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, C. S. Lewis remarks that "it is no kindness to Lyly to treat him as a serious novelist; the more seriously we take its action and characters the more odious his work will appear."1 The modern reader is inclined to agree, but Lyly's contemporaries might not. Lewis' observations contain a certain amount of truth, but truth of a rather anachronistic kind. Lyly did intend the work to be taken seriously, yet he never set out to produce anything even resembling a modern novel. That his intentions were far different is clear from his subtitle: The anatomy of wit very pleasant for all Gentlemen to read, and most necessary to remember: wherein are contained the delights that Wit followeth in his youth by the pleasantness of love, and the happiness he reapeth in age, by the perfectness of wisdom. The emphasis is upon the merits and demerits of wit and wisdom, and the work is not a novel but an anatomy, or analysis, of a problem central to humanist thought: the relationship between eloquence and truth. For this reason the storyline is thin, not to say meagre: a young...
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Bates, Catherine. "'A Large Occasion of Discourse': John Lyly and the Art of Civil Conversation." The Review of English Studies N.S. XLII, No. 168 (1991): 469-86.
Contends that Euphues fits better into the courtly tradition than it does into a bourgeois literature pattern.
Houppert, Joseph W. John Lyly. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975, 169 p.
Analysis of Lyly's prose narratives in terms of his "ironic vision" and of his plays in terms of dramatic tradition.
Hunter, G. K. John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, 376 p.
Pioneering study on Lyly that places his writings in historical context but also concentrates on the individual merits of particular works.
Jeffery, Violet M. John Lyly and the Italian Renaissance. 1928. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1969, 147 p.
Detailed description of Lyly's indebtedness to Italian literature, with passages quoted from probable sources.
Kinney, Arthur F. '"Singuler eloquence and braue composition': John Lyly, Euphues, and Its Sequel." In his Humanist Poetics: Thought, Rhetoric, and Fiction in Sixteenth-Century England, pp. 133-80....
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