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Lewis, C.S.  English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.  312-317.



[C.S. Lewis on Lyly's Euphues]

We now come to Lyly (c. 1553-1606) 1 himself, an author once unjustly celebrated for a style which he did not invent, and now inadequately praised for his real, and very remarkable, achievement. If Lyly had never written Euphues I should have placed him in the next chapter among the 'Golden' writers: that fatal success ties him down to the 'transitional' category.

The wild goose chase for a particular 'source' of euphuism, which began roughly with the publication of Landmann Euphuismus in 1881, is now, I take it, pretty well at an end. No literary development, perhaps, can be fully explained but few are less mysterious than this. In the present chapter we have seen its gradual emergence as a structural decoration alternative to the ink-horn decoration of vocabulary and therefore dear to purists. Its elements--antithesis, alliteration, balance, rhyme, and assonance--were not new. They can be found even in More and in the Latin of the Imitation. So far as the elements are concerned we are indeed embarrassed with too many ancestors rather than too few: those who inquire most learnedly find themselves driven back and back till they reach Gorgias.

What is added in full blown euphuism is a wealth of pseudoscientific simile--'new stones, new Fowles, new Serpents'. Of course that sort of simile neither began nor ended with the euphuists. Chaucer's reference to hyena's gall in his Response de Forhm would have delighted Lyly: the ostrich still hides her head in the sand for the convenience of political orators. What constitutes euphuism is neither the structural devices nor the 'unnatural history' but the unremitting use of both. The excess is the novelty: the euphuism of any composition is a matter of degree. We are all greatly indebted to a modern scholar for drawing our attention to the Latin orations of Joannes Rainoldus, delivered in the seventies and published as Orationes Duodecim in 1614 and 1619. Reynolds, a scholar of Corpus and tutor of Hooker, was a distinguished man in his day and the orations he delivered as Greek reader at Merton may have been the final and crucial influence upon Lyly, Lodge, Gosson, and others. Read in quotation, he may well appear as the original euphuist. It seems hard to demand more than a sentence like ut videmus herbam Anthmidem quo magis deprimitur eo latius diffundi. But if we sit down to Rainoldus for a whole morning we shall be disappointed. The euphuisms are there but they are not continuous; we wade through many a page of (moderate) Ciceronianism to reach them. The credit--or discredit--of having first kept the thing up for whole pages or decades of pages at a stretch must still, I believe, be given to Lyly. I speak, of course, of 'euphuism' as we now understand it; in Lyly's own time the word referred exclusively to the learned similes.

Euphues itself is related to Lyly's literary career rather as the Preface of the Lyrical Ballads is related to Wordsworth's; each marking a temporary aberration, a diversion of the author from his true path, which by its unfortunate celebrity confuses our impression of his genius. John Lyly belongs to a familiar type. He is a wit, a man of letters to his finger tips. He comes of erudite stock. His grandfather is Lyly of the Eton Grammar; his aunt marries two schoolmasters of St. Paul's in succession and her children have names like Polydore and Scholastica. At Magdalen ( Oxford) he is 'a dapper and deft companion' much averse to 'crabbed studies', behindhand with his battels and (need we add?) very critical of the dons. In our own age he would have been a leading light of the O.U.D.S. and when he went down would have become a producer. And that, in a sense, was what he actually became. He gets some post in the Revels and also at St. Paul's choir school; officially to teach the children Latin (judging by his own verses, he did it very badly), but unofficially to be dramatist, trainer, and producer to what is, in effect, a theatrical company. To that world of 'revels', of pretty, pert, highly trained boys who sing elegant poems to delicious music and enact stories that are 'ten leagues beyond man's life', in dialogue of exquisite and artificial polish, Lyly belongs. There he does (though with much financial discontent) the work that he was born to do. Unfortunately, however, once in his life, Lyly, then resident at the Savoy, anxious about his career, and much concerned to please his patron, the precisian Burleigh, in an evil hour (evil for his lasting fame) had decided to turn moralist. He would write a palinode against excess of wit and other youthful follies. He would line up with Ascham and others against the dangers of Italian travel. Of course such a design was a less violent departure for him than it would be for the same type of intellectual in many other periods. Moral severity was modish as well as prudent. The palinode against wit could be very witty. One did not need to step out of 'the Movement' in order to be a censor morum. No moral theology, no experience of life, no knowledge of the human heart were required. The plan had, from his point of view, everything to recommend it, and was carried out in Euphues. The Anatomy of Wit ( 1578).

I cannot agree with critics who hold that Euphues marks any advance in the art of fiction. For Lyly, as for Pettie, the story is a trellis. The difference is that Pettie's trellis was an inoffensive thing which you could forget once the roses were in bloom, while Lyly's is a monstrosity. Euphues betrays his sworn friend in love, is himself betrayed, undergoes a sudden conversion to philosophy, is reconciled (apparently without apology) to the injured friend, and for the rest of the book lectures the friend and the human race on morals in a style which would be rather too lofty for Cato to use to Heliogabalus. It is like seeing the School for Scandal re-written with Joseph Surface as the hero. It is no kindness to Lyly to treat him as a serious novelist; the more seriously we take its action and characters the more odious his book will appear. Whether Lyly's moralizing was sincere or no, we need not inquire: it is, in either case, intolerable. The book can now only be read, as it was chiefly read by Lyly's contemporaries, for the style. It is worst where it is least euphuistic. In the dialogue between Euphues and Atheos euphuism is almost wholly abandoned, and it is here that the confident fatuity of Lyly's thought becomes most exasperating.

Fortunately Lyly's didactic fit did not last long. The recovery is already beginning in Euphws and his England ( 1580). Here Euphues himself remains as detestable as he was before (the unfortunate Philautus is lectured even while sea sick) but there are three changes. In the first book Lyly addressed himself only to gentlemen; he now solicits the attention of ladies. In the first book we had a remedium amoris based on a condemnation of all women and therefore unrelated to any possible life in the real world: in the second, honest loves are distinguished from dishonest and the virtuous, though loving, Iffida has a little (a very little) vitality. Finally the narrative element is increased in quantity and improved in quality. In the Anatomy the story had played a very small part, and the book had to be filled out with a dialogue on atheism, a tractate on education (mainly from Plutarch), and numerous letters. In the England there are still plenty of instructive letters, but rather more happens and there are inset stories within the main story. The change must not be exaggerated. Lyly is still more interested in rhetoric than in character or situation; far further from the true novel than Amadis or Huon or Chaucer Troilus had been. In the history of fiction his book is not an advance from medieval art but a retrogression. It is, however, an advance from its predecessor. And in becoming less severely didactic Lyly has become, in every sense that matters, more moral. Values that a man might really acknowledge hang about Euphues and his England.

The chief pleasure now to be had from both books is our participation in the author's obvious enjoyment of his own rhetoric. We despise his sermons; but seeing him so young and brisk, so delightedly preoccupied with the set of his bonnet, the folds of his cloak, and the conduct of his little sword, we feel our hearts softened. But neither Lyly nor euphuism can be fairly judged from the two Euphues books. No style can be good in the mouth of a man who has nothing, or nonsense, to say. It is in the plays that euphuism shows its real value.

The difference may be illustrated by two quotations. Endimion soliloquizing in act II, scene i, says

I am none of those Wolues, that barke most when thou shinest brightest; but that fish
(thy fish Cynthia in the floode Arares) which at thy waxing is as white as the driuen
snowe, and at thy wayning, as blacke as deepest darknes.

Philautus, at the moment of discovering Euphues'treachcry, says

I see now that as the fish Scolopidus in the floud Araris at the waxinge of the Moone
is as white as the driuen snowe, and at the wayning as blacke as the burnt coale, so
Euphues, which at the first encreasing of our familyaritie, was very zealous, is nowe at
the last cast become most faythlesse.

There are minor differences, no doubt. Deepest darknes is more evocative than burnt coale. The laboured exposition of the analogy in Philautus' speech leads to a flat anticlimax--very zealous . . . most faythlesse. But the fundamental difference is that Philautus (in angry conversation) is merely talking about the moon, Endimion (in solitary passion) is adoring her; that the relation between this moon-struck fish and the behaviour of Euphues is purely intellectual, while Endimion can identify himself with the fish and his voice breaks at the identification in the parenthesis thy fish Cynthia. Hence Philautus' simile is frigid; in Endimion's the crazy exaltation is really suitable to the tale of a man who loved the moon. In Lyly's novels the euphuistic style is plastered over scenes and emotions (not themselves very interesting) which neither demand nor permit it; in his plays he creates a world where euphuism would be the natural language. And of course the antithesis--what M. Feuillerat calls le tic-tac métronomique of Lyly's style--is far better in dialogue than it could ever be in narrative. Not infrequently it achieves grandeur: as in 'He cannot subdue that which is diuine--Thebes was not-Vertue is' ( Campaspe, 1. i) or 'Shee shall haue an ende--so shall the world' ( Endimion, 1. i). Let us note in passing that it is here, not in the wretched work of Studley and his colleagues, that the Scnecan 'verbal coup de théâtre' is really Englished.

The history of drama is not my concern, so I will say nothing of Lyly's plays as 'theatre' beyond recording that when I saw Endimion the courtly scenes (not the weak foolery of Sir Thopas) held me delighted for five acts. But these plays have a literary importance which cannot be passed over in silence without crippling the whole story that this book sets out to tell. Lyly as a dramatist is the first writer since the great medievals whose taste we can trust: the first who can maintain a work of any length qualis ab incepto processerit. Having conceived the imaginary world in which most of his plays are set--whether antique-heroical as in Campaspe or pastoral-Ovidian as in most of the others--he brings everything into keeping. He is consistently and exquisitely artificial. If we miss in him that full-bloodedness which delights a modern in so many Elizabethans, we must remember that it was a quality of which our literature had then too much rather than too little. Belly laughter or graphic abuse could then be supplied by almost everyone; the fault was that they often intruded where they were ruinous. The lightness of Lyly's touch, the delicacy, the blessed unreality were real advances in civilization. His nymphs and shepherdesses are among the first ladies we have met since the Middle Ages. They have all the character they need; to demand more is like asking to have a portrait head by Reynolds clapped on to a goddess out of Tintoretto. His only serious fault is the weakness of the low comedy scenes between the pages. In Love's Metanwphosis he omitted the clowns and compensated for their absence by making the heroines a little lighter and more playful. The result is something sweeter and fresher, but hardly less piquant, than Millamant. It is on these bubblelike comedies, not on Euphues nor on his anti-Mardnist pamphlet Pappe with a Hakhet, that Lyly's fame must rest. And they are good, not despite, but by means of, his style. It is the perfect instrument for his purpose, and he can make it pert, grave, tragic, or rapturously exalted. If, as most scholars think, he did not write the admirable songs which appeared in the 1632 collection of Six Court Comedies, he certainly wrote plays exactly fitted to contain those songs. For in the larger and older sense of the word his genius was essentially poetical and his work 'poesie'. Here is the 'Golden' literature at last.


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1 b. 1553 or 1554. A Kentish man. Commoner, Magdalen, Oxford, perhaps with the assistance of Burleigh, 1569(?). B.A., 1573. Unsuccessful attempt through Burleigh to get royal nomination to a fellowship, 1574. M.A., 1575. In London at the Savoy, 1578. Patronized by Earl of Oxford, 1580. Loses Oxford's favour, 1582. Post in the Revels: also Vice Master (?) of St. Paul's 1585. M.P., 1588-9. Possibly a reader of books for licensing to the Bishop of London. Involved in Marprelate Controversy on the bishops' side, 1589, Petition to the queen, 1595. Second petition, 1598. Ob., 1606.