Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 4. His material, method and style

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

§ 4. His material, method and style

Moreover, as has now been clearly demonstrated, the style of Lyly, even with all his additions and modifications, is but a stage of the evolution, in Spain, Italy, France and England, of a pompous, complicated, highly artificial style, derived from the Latin periods of Cicero, to which each decade of the renascence and each experimental copyist had added some new details of self-conscious complexity. Lyly had two models: one, partly for style but mainly for material, and the other almost wholly for style. The first was The Dial of Princes of Don Antonio de Guevara (1529, with English translations by Berners in 1534 and by North in 1557); the second was George Pettie’s The Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576). What Lyly specially develops for himself is the elaborate and irritatingly frequent punning and the constant citation of the “unnatural natural history” of Pliny. Nevertheless, Lyly was one of those—perhaps the chief among the prose writers of his day—who had a genuine feeling for style. He felt, as Bond has said,

  • the need of and consistently aimed at what has been well denominated the quality of mind in style—the treatment of the sentence, not as a haphazard agglomeration of clauses, phrases and words, but as a piece of literary architecture whose end is foreseen in the beginning and whose parts are calculated to minister to the total effect.
  • Yet his style is his own, rather because of the surpassing skill with which he handles its details and imprints the stamp of his personality on it, than because the details are original.