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EUPHUISM, the peculiar mode of speaking and writing brought into fashion in England towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth by the vogue of the fashionable romance of Euphues, published in 1578 by John Lyly. As early as 1570, Ascham in his Schoolmaster had said that "Euphues" (that is, a man well-endowed by nature, from the Greek) is "he that is apt by goodness of wit, and appliable by readiness of will, to learning, having all other qualities of the mind and parts of the body that must another day serve learning." Lyly adopted this word as the name of the hero of his romance, and it is with him that the vogue of Euphuism began. John Lyly, "always averse to the crabbed studies of logic and philosophy, and his genie being naturally bent to the pleasant paths of poetry," devoted himself exclusively to the service of the ladies, a thing absolutely unprecedented in English literature. He addressed himself to "the gentlewomen of England," and he had the audacity, in that grave age, to say that he would rather see his books "lie shut in a lady's casket than open in a scholar's study."

In order to attain this object, he set himself to create a superfine style in writing, and to illustrate this in his compositions. He undertook to produce a pleasurable literature for the boudoir and the bower. Lyly was twenty-six when he published in 1579 the first part of Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit: a second part, entitled Euphues and his England, appeared in 1580. His object was diametrically opposed to that of writers who had striven to instruct, reprove or edify their contemporaries. Lyly, assuming that women only will read his book, says: — "After dinner, you may overlook it to keep you from sleep, or if you be heavy to bring you asleep, for to work upon a full stomach is against physic, and therefore better were it to hold Euphues in your hands, though you let him fall when you be willing to wink, than to sew in a closet and prick your fingers when you begin to read."

For a comprehension of the nature of Euphuism it is necessary to remember that the object of its invention was to attract and to disarm the ladies by means of an ingenious and playful style, of high artificiality, which should give them the idea that they were being entertained by an enthusiastic adorer, not instructed by a solemn pedagogue. For fifty years the romance of Euphues retained its astonishing popularity. As late as 1632, the publisher Edward Blount (1560?-1632), recalling the earliest enthusiasm of the public, wrote of John Lyly, "Oblivion shall not so trample on a son of the Muses, and such a son as they called their darling. Our nation are in his debt for a new English which he taught them. Euphues and his England began first that language. All our ladies were then his scholars, and that beauty in Court, which could not parley Euphuism, was as little regarded, as she which, now there, speaks not French." Among those who applied themselves to this "new English," one of the most ardent was Queen Elizabeth herself, who has been styled by J. R. Green "the most affected and destestable of euphuists." At the height of the popularity of this strange dialect, it was said by William Webbe, in his Discourse of English Poetry (1586), to consist in a combination of "singular eloquence and brave composition of apt words and sentences, in fit phrases, in pithy sentences, in gallant tropes, in flowing speech,"* while a French poet of the same age calls Lyly a " raffineur" of the English speech; another panegyrist describes him as "alter Tullius," meaning that, in inventing Euphuism, he had introduced into English the refinements of a Ciceronian style.

When we put aside these excessive compliments, and no less the attacks from which the style suffered as soon as it began to go out of fashion, we are able to observe merits as well as faults in this very curious experiment. Euphuism did not attempt to render the simplicity of nature. On the contrary, in order to secure refinement, it sought to be as affected, as artificial, as high-pitched as possible. Its most prominent feature was an incessant balancing of phrases in chains of antitheses, thus: — "Though the tears of the hart be salt, yet the tears of the boar be sweet, and though the tears of some women be counterfeit to deceive, yet the tears of many be current to try their love"; or this: — "Reject it not because it proceedeth from one which hath been lewd, no more than ye would neglect the gold because it lieth in the dirty earth, or the pure wine for that it cometh out of a homely presse, or the precious stone aetites which is found in the filthy nests of the eagle, or the precious gem draconites, that is ever taken out of the poisoned dragon." Manuscript image of a dragonThis second excerpt, moreover, suggests another of the main characteristics of Euphuism, the incessant use, for purposes of ornament, of similes taken from fabulous records of zoology, or relating to mythical birds, fishes or minerals. This was a feature of the "new English" which was excessively admired, and copied with a senseless extravagance. Instances of it are found on every page of Lyly's books, thus: "Although the worm entereth almost into every wood, yet he eateth not the cedartree; though the stone cylindrus at every thunder-clap roll from the hill, yet the pure sleek stone mounteth at the noise; though the rust fret the hardest steel, yet doth it not eat into the emerald; though polypus change his hue, yet the salamander keepeth his colour"; and so on, ad infinitum. That lady was considered most proficient in euphuism who could keep up longest these chains of similes taken out of fabulous natural history.

Alliteration was also a particular ornament of the euphuistic style, as: "The bavin, though it burn bright, is but a blaze," but the use of this artifice by Lyly himself was rarely exaggerated; for instances of its excess we have rather to turn to his imitators. In the following passage the typical forms of Euphuism, in its pure and original conditions, are so combined and illustrated as to require no further commentary: "Do we not commonly see that in painted pots is hidden the deadliest poison? that in the greenest grass is the greatest serpent? in the clearest water the ugliest toad? Doth not experience teach us that in the most curious sepulchre are enclosed rotten bones? that the cypress tree beareth a fair leaf, but no fruit? that the ostrich carrieth fair feathers, but rank flesh?" — and so forth. It will be noticed that these characteristics differ in many respects from the specimens of euphuism which are most familiar to a modern reader, namely the extravagant speech placed in the mouth of Sir Piercie Shafton in Sir Walter Scott's romance of The Monastery. Scott modelled this character on what he called that "forgotten and obsolete model of folly, once fashionable," Lyly's novel of Euphues, but he had not studied the original to sufficient purpose, and the bombastic ravings of Sir Piercie, who simply talks like a lunatic, have deceived many readers as to the real characteristics of Euphuism. Scott betrays his own error when he says that "the extravagance of Euphuism. .. predominates in the romances of Calprenede and Scuderi," in which it is true that a tone of preposterous gallantry finds a language of its own, but that is not the language of Euphues. What Sir Piercie Shafton talks is a mixture of the style of these French romances, with the ostentation of Sir Fopling Flutter and the extravagances of the Scotch translator of Rabelais. But these various sorts of pretentious eloquence have little or nothing in common with the balanced and conceited style of Euphues.

We find that the genuine sort of this kind of superfine conversation was originally called "Euphues," simply, as Overbury speaks of a man "who speaks Euphues, not so gracefully as heartily."  The earliest instance of the word "Euphuism" which has been traced occurs in a letter, written by Gabriel Harvey in 1592, when he speaks of a man, who would be smart, as talking "a little Euphuism." Dekker, in the Gull's Hornbook of 1609, uses the word as an adjective, and denounces "Euphuised gentlewomen." When the practice was going out of fashion we find it thus severely stigmatized by Michael Drayton, a poet who had little sympathy with the artificial refinement of Lyly. In an elegy, printed in 1627, Drayton refers to the merit of Sir Philip Sidney, who recalled English prose to sanity, and "did first reduce Our tongue from Lyly's writings then in use, Talking of stones, stars, plants, of fishes, flies, Playing with words and idle similes, As th' English apes and very zanies be Of everything that they do hear and see, So imitating his ridiculous tricks They spake and writ, all like mere lunatics."

This severe censure of Euphuism may serve to remind us that hasty critics have committed an error in supposing the Arcadia of Sidney to be composed in the fashionable jargon. That was certainly not the intention of the author, and in fact the publication of the Arcadia, eleven years after that of Euphues, marks the beginning of the downfall of the popularity of the latter. Sidney's prose, it is true, was extremely ornamented, but it was instinct with romantic fancy, and it affected a chivalrous and florid fulness which was artificial enough, but wholly distinct from the more homely elegance of Euphuism as we have defined it. The publication of the Arcadia was a severe blow to the Euphuists. Immediately the ladies began to desert their former favourite, and the object at court became, as Ben Jonson noted, to "observe as pure a phrase and use as choice figures in ordinary conference as any be in the Arcadia."§  But, in the meantime, Lyly had found in Greene, Lodge, Dickenson, Nicholas Breton and others enthusiastic disciples who had learned all the formulas of Euphuism, and could bring them forth as fluently and elegantly as he could himself. Nevertheless the trick wore out, with the taste that it had created, and by the close of the reign of James I Euphuism had become a dead language.

Critics have not failed to insist, on the other hand, that a species of Euphuism existed before Euphues was thought of. It has been supposed that a translation of the familiar epistles, or, as they were called, the "Golden Letters," of a Spanish monk, Antonio de Guevara, led Lyly to conceive the extraordinary style which bears the name of his hero. Between 1574 and 1578 Edward Hellowes (fl. 1550-1600) translated into a very extravagant English prose three of the works of Guevara. Earlier than this, in 1557, Sir Thomas North had published a version of the same Spanish writer's Reloj de Principes (The Dial of Princes), a moral and philosophical romance which is not without a certain likeness in plan and language to Euphues. It is extremely difficult to know to what extent these translations, which were not strikingly unlike many other specimens of the ornamented English prose of their period, can be said to be responsible for the production of Euphuism. At all events no one can doubt that it was Lyly who concentrated the peculiarities of mannerism, and who gave to it the stamp of his own remarkable talent.

(Edmund Gosse)

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol IX
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 900.

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