John Lyly Biography


Unsurprisingly for an Elizabethan, John Lyly’s date of birth cannot be ascertained. From college records, it can be extrapolated back to some time in the early 1550’s, probably around 1554. Lyly was brought up, perhaps also born, in Canterbury, where his father was a cleric attached to the official service of the archbishops. Lyly’s near ancestors and family included central figures in the tradition of Humanism in England.

In the early 1570’s, John Lyly appears on the books of Magdalen College, Oxford. There is evidence that Lyly intended to pursue an academic career. On the other hand, some rather problematic testimony suggests that Lyly at Oxford was most noted for his interest in the fashionable life and recreations accessible to young men there. By the end of the 1570’s, he had moved out of the academic setting and was living in London. His two Euphues books, which he wrote around this time, seem to reflect both an affinity for a Humanistically colored academic world and a certain distance from such a world. The two books were immediately immensely popular, and with their publication, Lyly’s life rose clearly into a new orbit, around the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Lyly became attached to the household of Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, an important courtier; Lyly may have been the earl’s secretary. The connection led into another one, crucial to Lyly’s creative life. Oxford patronized the troupes of choirboy actors that...

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John Lyly (LIH-lee) appeared on England’s literary horizon at the same time as Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and each made important contributions to the literature that followed. In the twentieth century, the works of both Lyly and Spenser have fallen on hard days, Lyly with more justification, perhaps, than Spenser. However, Lyly influenced such later writers as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson: He showed the importance of prose as an art form, and he made literature of plays.

Like most of the literary Elizabethans, Lyly left no information about his childhood. He was the grandson of the famous Latin grammarian William Lyly, whose popular fame lasted long enough for Ben Jonson to use his name in a joke in The Magnetic Lady (1634). John’s father was Peter Lyly, who held a diocesan office at Canterbury. Reckoning backward from the year 1569, when he entered Oxford at age sixteen or thereabouts, according to Anthony à Wood, Lyly’s biographers have assigned his birth to 1553 or 1554. He received his B.A. from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1573, and his M.A. in 1575. Accounts of his college life indicate that he was more interested in the creative than the scholarly arts, but these assumptions may be attributable to knowledge of his later life. Lyly’s interest in literature, like Spenser’s, was apparently secondary to his interest in political advancement. Again like Spenser, he suffered much disappointment. It is ironic that the...

(The entire section is 587 words.)