The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 5. Euphuism

Not the least striking feature of the work, however, is the peculiar style in which it is written. The style, known as Euphuistic, won a following in its day, and has since become one of the most familiar of literary phenomena. It is the least elusive of styles, being deliberately compounded and, therefore, easily analysed; but, while its grotesque exaggerations have met with more than appreciation, justice has not always been done to its real aims and effects. With all its flowers of fancy, it is nothing more than the “painful” expression of a sober calculating scholar, and is the outcome of a desire to write with clearness and precision, with ornament and culture, at a time when Englishmen desired “to heare finer speach then the language would allow.” Lyly aimed at precision and emphasis, in the first place, by carefully balancing his words and phrases, by using rhetorical questions and by repeating the same idea in different and striking forms. Alliteration, puns and further word-play were other devices employed to the same end. For ornament, in the second place, he looked mainly to allusions and similes of various kinds. He alludes to historical personages found in Plutarch and Pliny, to mythological figures taken from Ovid and Vergil. But his most daring ornamentation lies in his wholesale introduction of recondite knowledge; he draws similes from folklore, medicine and magic, above all from the Natural History of Pliny, and this mixture of quaint device and naïve science resulted in a style which appealed irresistibly to his contemporaries. It should here be added, however, that the acquaintance with Plutarch and Pliny, which the elements of Lyly’s style suggest, was not, necessarily, first hand. On the contrary, it was, almost certainly, obtained through the writings of Erasmus, which were in the hands of most sixteenth-century scholars and which had already penetrated into the schools. In them, Erasmus had presented the fruit of his classical reading. His Similia Colloquia, Apophthegmata and Adagia offered in a clear, coherent form much that was best in antiquity and they represented a storehouse of learning which would save Lyly much seeking in his quest for learned material. In some cases, where Erasmus reproduces Pliny or Plutarch verbatim, Lyly’s indebtedness to the great humanist might be doubted; but when Erasmus takes over his classical material in a somewhat altered form, when he expands or explains a thought, or falls into slight error or confusion, the fact that these variations from the original are faithfully reproduced in Lyly makes the latter’s source undoubted. And if this indebtedness be proved in the case of variations, a further debt may be inferred even where identity of expression appears in the classical writers, in Erasmus and Lyly.

But this elaborated style, this “curtizan-like painted affectation” of Euphuism, did not originate with Lyly himself; he only “hatched the egges that his elder friendes laide.” Its immediate origin lay in a certain stylistic tendency then fashionable in England. An almost identical craze had existed, a little earlier, in Spain, namely, in Guevara’s alto estilo, which, however, had lacked the English device of alliteration. But the English fashion did not come from Spain, though North’s Diall of Princes has often been credited with having effected the introduction: while this translation may have increased the vogue, it cannot have set the fashion. In the first place, North had employed a French version of Guevara’s work for the purposes of translation, and this was a medium likely to dissolve any peculiarities of style in the original. And, secondly, many of the features of Euphuism, its parallelism and repetitions, its rhetorical questions and classical allusions, had already appeared in Lord Berners’s Froissart (1524), not only before North, but before Guevara had written. This fashion, of which Berners is thus the first English representative, can, subsequently, be traced to some extent in Cheke and Ascham; while, in Pettie’s Petite Pallace, already mentioned, all the structural, and most of the ornamental, characteristics of Euphuism are present. It only remained for Lyly to expand the recognised methods of simile-manufacture by adding to Pettie’s collection, based on fact and personal observation, others invented by himself, and based on fancy.

The ultimate origin of the fashion lay yet further afield, and is to be traced to that widespread movement for improving the vernacular which left its mark on almost every European literature. The coincidence of its effects in the literary styles of England and Spain must be ascribed to the prevalence of similar national conditions in both those countries. In each case, it was the outcome of a perverted classical enthusiasm, which led to the imitation of late Latin stylists with their many extravagances. It was due, also, in part, to the necessity for a courtly diction which arose simultaneously in both countries, in consequence of the growing interest which centred round the person and court of the monarch. As a movement, it was by no means isolated; nor did its results assume merely one form. Arcadianism and Gongorism, the conceits of seventeenth-century France, and the pedantic mannerisms of Hoffmanswaldau and Lohenstein in Germany, are merely the outcome of the same influences, working at different times on different soils.

Nor are the results of Euphuism on English prose style by any means a negligible quantity, though its “cunning courtship of faire words,” its tedious redundancies and mass of ornaments, led to its abandonment, generally speaking, about 1590. Sidney, by that time, had lamented the fact that his contemporaries enamelled “with py’d flowers their thoughts of gold,” and Warner perceived that in running “on the letter we often runne from the matter.” But some good came of it all. An attempt had definitely been made to introduce design into prose; and balance and harmony were the fitting contributions of an age of poetry to the development of prose style. Prose diction, moreover, was encouraged to free itself from obsolescent words; and further devices for obtaining lucidity, such as the use of short sentences and paragraph divisions, were, henceforth, to be generally adopted by English writers.