As a writer of his time, John Lyly (1554-1606) apparently knew what would please the educated public and wrote it. After obtaining his A.M. degree at Oxford, he left for London and almost immediately became famous after the publication of Euphues (1578).
The eminence of his grandfather, William Lily, the author of standard Latin grammar that was then used in most schools, would also have helped, but John Lyly's elaborate and artificial style was bound to be appreciated by the Elizabethan court whose members delighted in such so called wit and all the possible artifices of language.
That it didn't last, wasn't surprising, and was perhaps just as well.
Today there are still many admirers of John Lyly's euphuistic style, certainly regarding his Six Court Comedies, of which Endymion (the Man in the Moon) is particularly appreciated.
Lyly was patronised by Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's lord treasurer. He wrote plays and acted at court, (the Children's companies) and served quite a few times as a member of Parliament.
The prose style is called 'Euphuism' (not to be confused with euphemism). It consists of elaborate sentence structure based on parallels from ancient citations and is decorated with proverbs, poetry, historical references and similes founded on pseudo-science from Pliny and taken from other sources including his own imagination.
The title Euphues, is Greek for 'graceful, witty'. The subtitle, Anatomy of Wit, might mean 'analysis of the mental faculties'. But it could hardly be either if 'anatomy' is the essential, underlying frame, and 'analysis', must explore in depth far beyond such superficial devices.
Shakespeare gives his Falstaff this pseudo wit, in 1 Henry IV . Falstaff parades euphuistically when he pretends to be the king disciplining his son, Prince Hal. (2.4.317-334).
After reading three pages of Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, one has the vague impression of drowning, still clutching at the underlying theme, in Lyly's seemingly endless depth of affected, embellishment. Here's an example:
'(...). Here he wanted no companions which courted him continually with sundry kinds of devices, whereby they might either soak his purse to reap commodity, or sooth his person to win credit, for he had guests and companions of all sorts. There frequented to this lodging and mansion house as well the spider to suck poison of his fine wit, as the bee to gather honey, as well the drone as the dove, the fox as the lamb, as well Damoclesᵒ to betray him as Damon¹ to be true to him : Yet he behaved himself so warily, that he singled his game wisely. He could easily discern Apollo's music, from Pan his pipe, and Venus's beauty from Juno's bravery,² and the faith of Laelius,³ from the flattery of Aristippus, he welcomed all, but trusted none, he was merry but yet so wary, that neither the flatterer could take advantage to entrap him in his talk, nor the wisest any assurance of his friendship : who being demanded of one what countryman he was, he answered, "What countryman am I not? if I be in Crete, I can lie, if in Greece I can shift, if in Italy I can court it:ᵒ if thou ask whose son I am also, I ask thee whose son I am not. I can carouse with Alexander, abstain with Romulus, eat with the Epicure, fast with the Stoic, sleep with Endymion, watch with Chrysippus,"¹ using these speeches and other like. An old gentleman in Naples seeing his pregnant wit, his eloquent tongue somewhat taunting, yet with delight, his mirth without measure, yet not without wit, his sayings vainglorious, yet pithy, began to bewail his nurture: and to muse at his nature, being incensed against the one as most pernicious, and enflamed with the other as most precious: for he well knew that so rare a wit would in time either breed an intolerable trouble, or bring an incomparable treasure to the common weal : at the one he greatly pitied, at the other he rejoiced.
° The flatterer of Dionysius, who arranged for him a great banquet, but had him seated with a sword hung by a single hair above his head, to stress the danger of eminence.
¹ The friend of Pythias, so true to him that he offered himself as his substitute to be executed.
² 'Bravery'- splendid aspect.
³ Faithful friend of Scipio Africanus the younger, from Cicero's treasury on friendship.
° The Cretians once had a reputation as liars. 'Shift' regarding the Greeks refers to what it was then believed to be their practice, to live by deceit. 'Court it' refers to the Italians courtly manner.
¹ Romulus was founder and first king of Rome. The legend has it that he was saved and suckled with his brother Remus, by a she-wolf. He became the symbol of abstinence. The Epicureans, followers of Epicurus, reputedly cared for nothing other than pleasure. The Stoics priority was duty. According to the Greek legend, Endymion was renowned for his beauty and his eternal sleep on Mt. Latmus. There the moon goddess fell in love with him. Chrysippus was a famous Stoic philosopher, so intent on study that he hardly ever slept.
Despite Lyly's affected style, (which many still regard, and perhaps rightly so, as genial) it might be interesting to compare him as an example of a 16th century Oxford graduate, also likely favoured because of his grand-father's reputation, who leaves university to become an instant success; with Shakespeare. Shakespeare was virtually an autodidact, but the difference between the two has little
to do with education.
Lyly was a well educated and favoured writer, certainly of his time. Shakespeare was a true genius, playwright, poet and artist of all time.
Text © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature, with thanks. June, 2011