Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

EUPHUES AND HIS ENGLAND is a sequel to the enormously popular EUPHUES, THE ANATOMY OF WIT (1578). Both of these prose romances were widely acclaimed in the 1580’s. Indeed, euphuism, the prose style named for the linguistic mannerisms of these works, was cultivated by contemporary ladies of the court. The style is excessive in its exaggerated use of certain rhetorical figures. It was attacked in its own time by Sir Philip Sidney for its violations of decorum, and its vogue was over before the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

John Lyly’s elaborate prose style did not appear out of nowhere. Lyly combined and concentrated elements that had appeared in Lord Berner’s translation of Froissart’s CHRONICLES (1523, 1525), Sir Thomas North’s translation of Guevara’s THE DIAL OF PRINCES (1557), and, most important, George Pettie’s A PETITE PALACE OF PETTIE HIS PLEASURE (1576). To a great extent, the style seems to have been designed to attract female readers. Even if it was a short-lived phenomenon, the style does seem to reflect many characteristics and concerns of its age. In a period that was increasingly self-conscious about the potentialities of English as opposed to the classical languages for literary expression, it is a highly artful attempt to refine English prose.

The refinements are primarily in the repeated and extended use of a few decorative rhetorical figures. Balance and, in particular, antithesis are so omnipresent that they frequently overpower the flow of the plot and the dialogue. Narrative sequence and logical consistency are less important than parallel structures. The parallelisms are further embellished with consonance, assonance, alliteration, and other figures of speech that develop self-conscious rhythms and harmonies. The result is like the most ornate poetry of Spenser turned into prose and gone wild. Nevertheless, it does share the Elizabethan preoccupation with linguistic decoration.

The narrative is also adorned with proverbs and with allusions to classical antiquity and to the bizarre matter of Renaissance natural histories. The fondness for proverbial wisdom, which can be noticed even in Shakespeare’s plays, is quite characteristic of the period; however, it should be added that in LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST, Shakespeare did satirize Lyly’s verbal excesses. The fanciful descriptions in the natural histories, some borrowed from Pliny and more fashioned out of the wild imaginations of the Naturalists, are bizarre but very much a part of the extravagant wit of the Elizabethan age. What is eccentric is the overwhelming repetition of the features. Like the figures of speech, the proverbs and allusions tend to smother the narrative and reduce the style to a clever curiosity. Paradoxically, the...

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