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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits

§ 2. John Lyly

John Lyly, born in 1553 or 1554, was an Oxford man. He graduated B.A. in 1573, and M.A. in 1575, and, in 1579, was incorporated M.A. at Cambridge. By precedence in work and, probably, in actual historical importance, he is the leader of the group. Indeed, Lyly is typical of the university-bred man whose native common-sense and humour just save him from the pedantry which conceives that the summum bonum for man lies in books, and in books only. His remarkably receptive and retentive mind had been open at the university to all influences for culture, both permanent and ephemeral. Like a true son of the time, also, he could rarely distinguish between the two kinds.

Blount, the compiler of the first collected edition of Lyly’s plays (1632), declared:

  • Our nation are in his debt, for a new English which hee taught them. Euphues and His England began first that language: All our Ladies were then his Schollers; And that Beautie in Court which could not Parley Euphueisme, was as little regarded as shee which now there speakes not French. These his playes Crown’d him with applause, and the Spectators with pleasure. Thou canst not repent the Reading of them over; when Old John Lilly is merry with thee in thy Chamber, Thou shalt say, Few (or None) of our Poets, now are such witty companions.
  • But Blount wrote after the fashion of a publisher turned biographer, not as a man thoroughly informed. In regard to both Euphues and the plays, Gabriel Harvey’s malicious statement that “young Euphues hatched the egges, that his elder freends laide” comes much nearer the truth. In the plays which Lyly wrote between his first appearance as an author, in 1579, with his novel Euphues and his Anatomie of Wit, and his death in 1606, he was rather one who mingled literary and social fashions, a populariser and a perfecter, than a creator. The composite product bears the imprint of his personality, but he borrows more than he creates. A brief review of material, methods and style in his comedy will prove this true.