Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152
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 potential orderliness of the balanced style, with its frequent repetitions, is an apt medium for an age that saw an order in the cosmos and in the life of man, which it tried to recreate in the artful control of language. At its best, as in the poetry of Spenser, the style is a leisurely, pleasing, and decorous elaboration of common themes. At its worst, in Lyly’s prose, it becomes monstrous and sometimes even comic.
EUPHUES AND HIS ENGLAND is much less remembered as a narrative than as a stylistic fad. As a piece of fiction, it is a romance that gathers several essentially unrelated stories together and unites them only by means of a single central character and a few recurrent themes that punctuate the action. All characters in the work, including Euphues, are highly conventional. They do not come to any epiphanies or undergo moral evolutions; rather, they are stock figures who are put into standard situations and given the opportunity to expatiate at considerable length on a variety of time-honored themes. In speeches, dialogues, and letters, the characters deliver themselves of opinions on the prominent topics of the day—love, youthful excess, constancy, friendship, and education. Although the loose structure of the plot owes much to the contemporarily popular Italian romances, the themes are strikingly those of Elizabethan England, topics repeatedly addressed in the lyric poetry of the sonneteers and in the popular books on behavior, such as Ascham’s THE SCHOOLMASTER and Hoby’s translation of Castiglione’s THE COURTIER.
The two most frequent preoccupations of the narrative are first, the combination of Platonism and Christian moralism that emanated from the writings of the Humanists of the later Renaissance and, second, self-congratulatory reveling in the imperial glories of Elizabethan England. Events provide a pretext for philosophical debate. Therefore, when Philautus becomes infatuated with Camilla and later when he falls in love with Frances, there is ample opportunity for extensive discussion of the levels of love and of the ultimate superiority of the divine over the human. Similarly, Fidus’ advice on the principles of monarchy and Euphues’ praise of English customs and governmental institutions are extensive presentations of the habitual themes of the courtesy books and of even so distinguished a work as THE FAERIE QUEENE.
Some critics have suggested that the Euphues romances are predecessors of the novel of manners and of the psychological novel; yet they seem to contain too little plot or character development to assign them this seminal role in the history of fiction. Rather they seem to look to the past—to the combination and elaboration of conventional themes in the episodic Medieval romance. If Lyly had any influence, it was more probably on the history of style. For all his absurdities, he did much to loosen the rigidity of the Latinate rhetoric, which had been superimposed on English. Certainly he influenced the earlier work of writers such as Robert Greene. Even as a stylist, however, he has barely survived his age except as an oddity. Indeed, in his concentration of the conventional ideas of Platonism, Protestantism, and courtesy, and in his sometimes maniacal overuse of ornamentation, Lyly not only reflected his age but unconsciously parodied it, and himself.
This sequel deals less directly with morals and more openly with the psychology of love and is, in some ways, an improvement on the first book. Although there is the same dependency on classical sources, such as Pliny and Erasmus, for examples to illustrate truths and for the truths themselves, this work has a better, more coherent plot and depends less on the use of letters from one character to another as a narrative method. The style is, if anything, more graceful and delicate than that in the earlier narrative. Some passages might well please the more fastidious modern reader, and certainly most of the book pleased the Elizabethan reader. Perhaps the most pleased was Queen Elizabeth, since much of the book is taken up with praise of England, Englishmen, and the queen herself. Also of interest to Lyly’s contemporaries, undoubtedly, were the extensive and often penetrating passages on the many facets of love. Much sound advice is freely given among the characters, and the events in the plot serve to support the wisdom embodied in action and character.
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