Summary and Analysis of Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit by John Lyly

Euphues is a prose romance by John Lyly, of which the first part, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, was published in 1578, and the second, Euphues and his England, in 1580. Although very popular and regularly reprinted, their plots are very slender and really just a peg on which to hang the fashionable discourses, conversations, letters, mainly on the subject of love, and the witty language, which so appealed to contemporary readers.

In the first part Euphues, a young Athenian, visits Naples, where he makes the acquaintance of Philautus, an Italian, and a friendship develops between them. Nonetheless, Euphues proceeds to oust Philautus from the affections of Lucilla, to be in turn, ejected by one Curio. Euphues and Philautus, after upbraiding one another, unite in holding Lucilla ‘as most abominable’, and part friends, Euphues returning to Greece and leaving behind him a pamphlet of advice to lovers, which he terms A cooling Carde for Philautus’.

In part two Euphues and Philautus travel to England, where their adventures are less entertaining than at Naples. They are largely concerned with the love affairs on which Philautus embarks, in spite of Euphues’ advice to use circumspection in his dealings with English ladies; much is occupied by a discussion on such questions as ‘whether in love be more required secrecie or constancie’. Finally, Euphues is recalled to Greece. From Athens Euphues addresses a letter to the ladies of Italy, ‘Euphues’ Glasse for Europe’, in which he describes England, its institutions, its ladies, its gentlemen, and its queen; and a final letter of general advice from Euphues to Philautus completes the work.

Euphues is famous for its distinctive style, to which it has given the name ‘euphuism‘. Its principal characteristics are the heavy use of antithesis, which is pursued regardless of sense, and emphasized by alliteration and other devices; and of allusions to historical and mythological personages and to natural history drawn from such encyclopedic writers as Plutarch, Pliny, and  Erasmus. This has symmetry and balance, the uses of alliterative and antithetical expressions and a rhythmic and harmonious flow of the language. This style, no doubt, appears somewhat exaggerated and artificial, but it has something of an innovation for the English prose-style of the age, lacking both in form and in artistry. Walter Scott satirized euphuism in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton in The Monastery and Charles Kingsley defended Euphues in Westward Ho!

Lyly’s Euphues is not a great work, but it stands out as a great literary inspiration for the subsequent Elizabethan authors. In fact, in the making of the Elizabethan romances and in the cultivation of an elegant prose-style in the Elizabethan age, Lyly’s romance and euphuistic method are found to have a considerable role. They prove inspiring enough for a number of his contemporaries and immediate followers. The work was enormously popular in its time. But its theme and style remain yet engaging for a modern reader to learn and imitate.

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