John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit is one of the most significant works in the development of English prose style. First published in 1578, the novel was one of the most popular fictions of the period, going through thirteen editions by 1613 and inspiring imitation among a number of contemporary writers, including Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, and even, in a parodic tone, William Shakespeare. While the ornate, balanced, and highly artificial style that came to be known as euphuism did not originate with the novel, Euphues did make the style immensely popular and transformed the way in which English prose was written.
The essential hallmarks of euphuism are rhetorical; they undeniably emphasize sound over sense. Chief among these devices is balance, in the form of antithesis and in the form of parallelism, in which grammatical forms are kept carefully even. Alliteration and assonance, in which similarities in sound help tie phrases and sentences together, are also important to the style.
Antithesis, which comes form a Greek word meaning “opposition,” combines and contrasts ideas in a balanced rhetorical form that gives equal weight to both. Euphues’s advice to Lucilla—“If you will be cherished when you be old, be courteous when you be young”—is an example of a balanced, antithetical statement. The second half of the sentence duplicates the grammatical structure of the first half, while the two parts of the sentence complement each other in form and meaning. “Cherished” is balanced against “courteous” and “old” against “young.”
This balanced, antithetical pattern is the most characteristic feature of Euphues, and Lyly’s obsessively regular use of it has caused some critics and scholars of the novel to remark on its metronomic rhythm and to complain that the work is all sound and no sense. The perception that Lyly is obsessed with sound at the total expense of sense is mistaken; in Euphues, antithesis is used to express Lyly’s view of human life as a conflict between appearance and reality. Lyly uses his specific rhetorical devices to examine the paradox of human perceptions and feelings.
“Do we not commonly see that in painted pots is hidden...
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