Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by William Minto
John Lyly (1555?1606)
[Little is known of Lylys life. He was born in Kent, studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, was patronised by Lord Burghley, and wrote plays for the Child players at the Chapel Royal,the aery of children, alluded to in Hamlet, little eyases, that cry out on the top of the question and are most tyrannically clapped for t. He died in 1606. His Euphues was published, first part in 1579, second part in 1580.]
THE AIRY mirthful plays and pretty little songs of the witty, comical, facetiously quick and unparalleled John Lyly, as his publisher described him, are a standing refutation of M. Taines picture of England in the Elizabethan age as a sort of den of wild beasts. No Frenchman in any age was ever more light and gay than Queen Elizabeths favourite writer of comedies, and the inventor or perfecter of a fashionable style of sentimental speech among her courtiers.
The epithet unparalleled applied to Lyly was more exact than puffs generally are. Though he is said to have set a fashion of talk among the ladies of the Court and their admirers, he found no imitator in letters; his peculiar style perished from literature with himself. Scotts Sir Percie Shafton is called a Euphuist, and is supposed to be an attempt at historical reproduction, but the caricature has hardly any point of likeness with the supposed original as we see it in the language which Lyly puts into the mouth of Euphues himself. Shafton is much more like Sidneys Rhombus or Shakespeares Holofernes, a fantastic pedant at whom the real Euphuists would have mocked with as genuine contempt as plain people of the present time. The dainty courtier Boyet, in Loves Labours Lost, who, according to the sarcastic Biron, picks up wit as pigeons pease, is perhaps the nearest approach to a Euphuist such as was modelled upon Lyly that we have in literature. The essence of Lylys Euphuism is its avoidance of cumbrous and clumsy circumlocution; his style is neat, precise, quick, balanced; full of puns and pretty conceits
Talking of stones, stars, plants, of fishes, flies,
Playing with words and idle similes,
as a satirist of the time describes itbut never verbose and heavy as the Euphuists style is sometimes represented.
Lyly wrote more comedies than any writer that preceded him, but he had no influence that can be traced upon our literature. We seem to find the key to their character in the fact that they were written to be played by children and heard and seen by ladies. Their pretty love-scenes, joyous pranks, and fantastically worded moralisings, were too light and insubstantial as fare for the common stage, and they were superseded as Court entertainments after Elizabeths death by masques in which ingenious scenic effects were the chief attraction, and plays with an ampler allowance of blood and muscle. Lylys childlike comedies, with their pigmy fun and pretty sentiment, were brushed aside by plays that appealed more seriously to the senses and the imagination; but it seems almost a pity that the example of his neatness and finish in construction did not take root. Perhaps the daintiness in his manipulation of his materials would have been impossible if the materials had been coarser or more solid.
Only one of Lylys undoubted comedies, The Woman in the Moon, was written in verse, and the verse differs little from his prose. It shows the same neat, ingenious workmanship. The reader is not conscious of any inward pressure of heightened feeling upon Lylys verse; he probably chose this instrument in preference to prose because it had become fashionable.