Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit

by John Lyly

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Critical Evaluation

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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 the deadliest poison, that in the greenest grass is the greatest serpent, in the clearest water the ugliest toad?” Under the moralizing tone of this question from Euphues, and implicitly expressed in its rhetorical form, is the recognition that human life consists of a series of contradictions, all equally valid at their particular moment. Lyly’s euphuistic prose is not merely a rhetorical performance; it is an analytic instrument for examining human feelings and emotions.

Parallelism, in which grammatical forms are kept carefully even, is another important part of Lyly’s style. Carried to the extreme that Lyly achieves in Euphues, it attains a highly artificial level, but, as with balance and antithesis, with which parallelism is often associated in the novel, parallelism serves to reinforce the paradoxical nature of human existence.

A notable example, cited by Joseph Houppert in his study of Lyly, is the rebuke of the nominally good man Eubulus for his normal human distress over the loss of a loved one: “Thou weepest for the death of thy daughter, and I laugh at the folly of the father; greater vanity is there in the mind of the mourner, than bitterness in the death of the deceased.” Here, the parallelism is obsessively exact, since “tears” and “laughter” contrast, while “death” and “daughter” alliteratively balance “folly” and “father,” at the same time that the verb pattern is strictly maintained. However, as Houppert notes, the seeming paradox between death and life, and grief and joy,...

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is resolved if one places this quotation in the context of the religious sentiment of Elizabethan England.

This quotation also illustrates a third major facet of Lyly’s prose style, alliteration and assonance. Alliteration, the recurrence of initial consonant or vowel sounds, is clearly present in the passage: “Death” and “daughter,” and “folly” and “father” are examples. Assonance, a similarity in sounds, is also present in this passage, as the sequence of vowels in “laugh,” “folly” and “father” indicate. Lyly uses a sophisticated, even artificial rhetorical device to knit his narrative more closely together in terms of sense and content.

Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit is not an important landmark in English literature simply because of its style. The basic movement of the plot—Euphues’s journey to ultimate wisdom after passing through the temptations and dangers of courtly society—is based to a large degree on the story of the prodigal son, as found in the New Testament. The novel’s central theme, that life is a pilgrimage during which the truly wise person learns to disregard the appearance of the world, is a highly moral one. Lyly expresses this theme in a highly moralistic fashion. Quite consciously and deliberately, Euphues intends to teach its readers some important lessons.

Euphues contains a large number of dialogues, discourses, and letters in which the characters advise, admonish, and encourage one another in the pursuit of virtue and the avoidance of sin. Repeatedly, Lyly’s highly structured prose style emphasizes the distance between what seems and what is. The Elizabethan Age was profoundly concerned with this topic and obsessively fearful of hypocrisy and dissimulation. Lyly’s elaborate and ornate handling of it helps explain the considerable enthusiasm for the book.

In the end, however, it is the combination of theme, content, characters, and especially style that makes Euphues a singular element of English writing. The novel opened new and largely unparalleled avenues for English literature.