Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
John Lyly (1555?1606)
[John Lyly was born in 1553 or 1554, and died in 1606. Euphues the Anatomy of Wit was published in 1579; Euphues and his England in 1580. Lylys comedies, most of them written in prose, belong to later years, from 1584 onward. They were written to be acted before the Queen by the children of Pauls, but seem, in spite of their courtly and artificial character, to have met with some favour also from popular audiences. The comedies have the same kind of rhetoric in them as Euphues has; with some new qualities of their own, and less moralising.]
THE SUCCESS of Lylys Euphues was due to a tact and dexterity that were seldom at fault. Euphues is made out of stuff that was common to all the world, or at any rate to all scholars, and there is nothing in the pattern of the work that is absolutely new. Detailed criticism of Euphues has left to the author of the book hardly anything that he can call his own, except the skill to catch the right moment in which to give to his contemporaries this abridgment of their favourite opinions, tastes, and vanities.
Euphues, in its two parts, is an edifying story, carrying out in its own way the same design as Spensers in the Faerie Queeneto fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline. This was the end of all poetry according to the doctrine of those days; a doctrine that might easily become conventional, and, on that account, entertaining, as in Harringtons demure apology for his Orlando. But it was not always held conventionally or hypocritically: it was not accepted in that way by Sidney or Spenser, nor by Lyly. The quaintness and pedantry of his discourse ought not to put out of view the simplicity and dignity of his purpose. Sometimes one is reminded by Lyly of the vogue of instructive handbooks in that timebooks for good manners as Touchstone calls thembut sometimes also there rises, beyond this delusive fashion of edification, an ideal of vertuous and gentle discipline, which is proof against cavillers.
Ages before Euphues, romantic literature had begun to pursue an ideal of this sort: first by mere insistence on certain ideal qualities, by the repetition of a certain type, by the courtesy of Gawain as set off against the churlishness of Kay. In Amadis of Gaul the ideal character is strongly emphasised. Tirant the White, still later among the books of chivalry, is definitely a story with a purpose; the purpose differs from that of Euphues in being more concerned with the virtues of men of war; the proportion between story and moralising is much the same as in Euphues. In this way the interest in problems of education and ideals of character passed on from one generation to another, changing in particulars, as the peaceful and scholarly view began to usurp on the ideals of chivalry, or to blend with them. The matter of Lylys book was matter accommodated to his own time. It put off altogether the fashion of chivalry which lingered in other books so long.
The life of the hero is passed in unwarlike society, and it is the life of this society that is represented in the book by the different characters and their conversations, their arguments, and moral epistles. The morality, the theology, are the morality and theology of the Faerie Queene without the poetry or the romance. What Lyly has in place of these qualities is a certain interest in modern character, a certain skilfulness, here and there, in describing moods and sentiments. The character of Iffida, her cruelty and constancy, in Euphues and his England, is an instance of this kind of description. Everywhere Lylys narrative is impeded by his digressions and illustrations, and the wit of what he calls quick and ready replies is merely appalling. But his quickness of wit is shown in the way he deals with sentimental vicissitudes, and this also is the secret of his popularity.
The style of Euphues has been often described and analysed. Like much of the matter of the book the style had been anticipated by previous authors. The essence of it is the habit of using balanced phrases: Lylys sentences break up into pairs of phrases, as Johnsons fall into triplets. This peculiarity looks like a first attempt at careful modelling of the sentence; balance and antithesis being naturally the first devices that suggest themselves to a sophist who wants something neater than loose-strung clauses. Lylys, however, is not the first attempt at neat sentences; and examples of this simple figure lay ready to his hand. He might have picked it up from his Prayer Book.
It has been shown by Dr. Landmann in his essay on Euphuism that many of the characteristics of Lylys style are to be found in the Spanish of Guevara, and more distinctly in the English translations and imitations of Guevara, before Lyly. Guevara may be taken as the author who did most to fix for a time this fashion of grammatical construction, which was one of the first inventions of Greek prose rhetoric. The English translations of Guevara are numerous, and to the most famous of them, the Marco Aurelio, translated by Lord Berners first, and then by Sir Thomas North, Lyly seems to be indebted for something more than lessons in composition. The Marco Aurelio, the Dial of Princes, is the source of many things belonging to the substance of Lylys book. The style of Euphues is not to be regarded as directly borrowed from Guevara. Lyly used consistently and deliberately a manner of writing that had been used occasionally by earlier writers, and that in Lylys time was evidently growing into a literary habit, before and apart from Euphues. Just as Guevara in Spain by a consistent use of the ordinary figure of balanced clauses had ruled the fashion which he did not invent, so Lyly, coming two generations later into acquaintance with the English variations on Guevara, took them up, appropriated them, and worked them out with more pains than any one else had bestowed on them.
The marks of Euphuism are three: balance of phrases, an elaborate system of alliteration, and a methodical use of similes taken generally from the virtues of different creaturesthe fish Scolopidus, the serpent Porphyrius, and a thousand others.
The first quality is common to all early experiments in sentence-making. The second had begun to be developed by North and Ascham: it represents, in English, the jingle of syllables, the Paronomasia, Parechesis, and other distressing symptoms noted by the classical rhetoricians. This kind of ornament is one of the earliest invented, and the soonest outworn; the use of it makes one of Platos touches in his dramatic portrait of the seedy person with intellectual tastes who reports the conversation of the Symposium. Lylys alliteration is much less obvious and, in fact, much less essential to his style than the other two mannerisms.
The continual reference to beasts and precious stones was, and is, felt as the most annoying of the devices of Euphuism. In this also Lyly had predecessors, who dealt, for instance, in the herb Camomile; the more it is trodden down the more it spreadeth abroad. But their ventures were modest and occasional: Lyly in this, as in everything, made the most of his chances; he felt bound to set up a larger collection of moral animals than any one else had, and to use it more instructively and perseveringly.
It is his quickness of wit that is his strength. He knows the utmost that can be done with his resources, and he is satisfied with nothing short of the utmost. It is this unfailing certainty about his own faculties and his aims that preserves, even now, a certain grace in Lylys moral story, though its day is so long passed over. In his comedy his aim was more distinct, his faculty less encumbered. His songs have a value not comparable with anything in his prose.