1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lyly, John

LYLY (Lilly, or Lylie), JOHN (1553–1606), English writer, the famous author of Euphues, was born in Kent in 1553 or 1554. At the age of sixteen, according to Wood, he became a student of Magdalen College, Oxford, where in due time he proceeded to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees (1573 and 1575), and from whence we find him in 1574 applying to Lord Burghley “for the queen’s letters to Magdalen College to admit him fellow.” The fellowship, however, was not granted, and Lyly shortly after left the university. He complains of what seems to have been a sentence of rustication passed upon him at some period in his academical career, in his address to the gentlemen scholars of Oxford affixed to the second edition of the first part of Euphues, but in the absence of any further evidence it is impossible to fix either its date or its cause. If we are to believe Wood, he never took kindly to the proper studies of the university. “For so it was that his genius being naturally bent to the pleasant paths of poetry (as if Apollo had given to him a wreath of his own bays without snatching or struggling) did in a manner neglect academical studies, yet not so much but that he took the degrees in arts, that of master being compleated 1575.” After he left Oxford, where he had already the reputation of “a noted wit,” Lyly seems to have attached himself to Lord Burghley. “This noble man,” he writes in the “Glasse for Europe,” in the second part of Euphues (1580), “I found so ready being but a straunger to do me good, that neyther I ought to forget him, neyther cease to pray for him, that as he hath the wisdom of Nestor, so he may have the age, that having the policies of Ulysses he may have his honor, worthy to lyve long, by whom so many lyve in quiet, and not unworthy to be advaunced by whose care so many have been preferred.” Two years later we possess a letter of Lyly to the treasurer, dated July 1582, in which the writer protests against some accusation of dishonesty which had brought him into trouble with his patron, and demands a personal interview for the purpose of clearing his character. What the further relations between them were we have no means of knowing, but it is clear that neither from Burghley nor from the queen did Lyly ever receive any substantial patronage. In 1578 he began his literary career by the composition of Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit, which was licensed to Gabriel Cawood on the 2nd of December, 1578, and published in the spring of 1579. In the same year the author was incorporated M.A. at Cambridge, and possibly saw his hopes of court advancement dashed by the appointment in July of Edmund Tylney to the office of master of the revels, a post at which, as he reminds the queen some years later, he had all along been encouraged to “aim his courses.” Euphues and his England appeared in 1580, and, like the first part of the book, won immediate popularity. For a time Lyly was the most successful and fashionable of English writers. He was hailed as the author of “a new English,” as a “raffineur de l’Anglois”; and, as Edmund Blount, the editor of his plays, tells us in 1632, “that beautie in court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which nowe there speakes not French.” After the publication of Euphues, however, Lyly seems to have entirely deserted the novel form himself, which passed into the hands of his imitators, and to have thrown himself almost exclusively into play-writing, probably with a view to the mastership of revels whenever a vacancy should occur. Eight plays by him were probably acted before the queen by the children of the Chapel Royal and the children of St Paul’s between the years 1584 and 1589, one or two of them being repeated before a popular audience at the Blackfriars Theatre. Their brisk lively dialogue, classical colour and frequent allusions to persons and events of the day maintained that popularity with the court which Euphues had won. Lyly sat in parliament as member for Hindon in 1589, for Aylesbury in 1593, for Appleby in 1597 and for Aylesbury a second time in 1601. In 1589 Lyly published a tract in the Martin Marprelate controversy, called Pappe with an hatchet, alias a figge for my Godsonne; Or Crack me this nut; Or a Countrie Cuffe, &c.[1] About the same time we may probably date his first petition to Queen Elizabeth. The two petitions, transcripts of which are extant among the Harleian MSS., are undated, but in the first of them he speaks of having been ten years hanging about the court in hope of preferment, and in the second he extends the period to thirteen years. It may be conjectured with great probability that the ten years date from 1579, when Edmund Tylney was appointed master of the revels with a tacit understanding that Lyly was to have the next reversion of the post. “I was entertained your Majestie’s servaunt by your own gratious favor,” he says, “strengthened with condicions that I should ayme all my courses at the Revells (I dare not say with a promise, but with a hopeful Item to the Revercion) for which these ten yeres I have attended with an unwearyed patience.” But in 1589 or 1590 the mastership of the revels was as far off as ever—Tylney in fact held the post for thirty-one years—and that Lyly’s petition brought him no compensation in other directions may be inferred from the second petition of 1593. “Thirteen yeres your highnes servant but yet nothing. Twenty freinds that though they saye they will be sure, I finde them sure to be slowe. A thousand hopes, but all nothing; a hundred promises but yet nothing. Thus casting up the inventory of my friends, hopes, promises and tymes, the summa totalis amounteth to just nothing.” What may have been Lyly’s subsequent fortunes at court we do not know. Edmund Blount says vaguely that Elizabeth “graced and rewarded” him, but of this there is no other evidence. After 1590 his works steadily declined in influence and reputation; other stars were in possession of the horizon; and so far as we know he died poor and neglected in the early part of James I.’s reign. He was buried in London at St Bartholomew the Less on the 20th of November, 1606. He was married, and we hear of two sons and a daughter.

Comedies.—In 1632 Edmund Blount published “Six Court Comedies,” including Endymion (1591), Sappho and Phao (1584), Alexander and Campaspe (1584), Midas (1592), Mother Bombie (1594) and Gallathea (1592). To these should be added the Woman in the Moone (Lyly’s earliest play, to judge from a passage in the prologue and therefore earlier than 1584, the date of Alexander and Campaspe), and Love’s Metamorphosis, first printed in 1601. Of these, all but the last are in prose. A Warning for Faire Women (1599) and The Maid’s Metamorphosis (1600) have been attributed to Lyly, but on altogether insufficient grounds. The first editions of all these plays were issued between 1584 and 1601, and the majority of them between 1584 and 1592, in what were Lyly’s most successful and popular years. His importance as a dramatist has been very differently estimated. Lyly’s dialogue is still a long way removed from the dialogue of Shakespeare. But at the same time it is a great advance in rapidity and resource upon anything which had gone before it; it represents an important step in English dramatic art. His nimbleness, and the wit which struggles with his pedantry, found their full development in the dialogue of Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing, just as “Marlowe’s mighty line” led up to and was eclipsed by the majesty and music of Shakespearian passion. One or two of the songs introduced into his plays are justly famous and show a real lyrical gift. Nor in estimating his dramatic position and his effect upon his time must it be forgotten that his classical and mythological plots, flavourless and dull as they would be to a modern audience, were charged with interest to those courtly hearers who saw in Midas Philip II., Elizabeth in Cynthia and perhaps Leicester’s unwelcome marriage with Lady Sheffield in the love affair between Endymion and Tellus which brings the former under Cynthia’s displeasure. As a matter of fact his reputation and popularity as a play-writer were considerable. Gabriel Harvey dreaded lest Lyly should make a play upon their quarrel; Meres, as is well known, places him among “the best for comedy”; and Ben Jonson names him among those foremost rivals who were “outshone” and outsung by Shakespeare.

Euphues.—It was not, however, as a dramatist, but as the author of Euphues, that Lyly made most mark upon the Elizabethan world. His plays amused the court circle, but the “new English” of his novel threatened to permanently change the course of English style. The plot of Euphues is extremely simple. The hero, whose name may very possibly have been suggested by a passage in Ascham’s Schoolmaster, is introduced to us as still in bondage to the follies of youth, “preferring fancy before friends, and this present humour before honour to come.” His travels bring him to Naples, where he falls in love with Lucilla, the governor’s light-minded daughter. Lucilla is already pledged to Euphues’s friend Philautus, but Euphues’s passion betrays his friendship, and the old lover finds himself thrown over by both friend and mistress. Euphues himself, however, is very soon forsaken for a more attractive suitor. He and Philautus make up their quarrel, and Euphues writes his friend “a cooling card,” to be “applied to all lovers,” which is so severe upon the fair sex that Lyly feels it necessary to balance it by a sort of apology addressed “to the grave matrons and honest maidens of Italy.” Euphues then leaves Naples for his native Athens, where he gives himself up to study, of which the first fruits are two long treatises—the first, “Euphues and his Ephoebus,” a disquisition on the art of education addressed to parents, and the second, “Euphues and Atheos,” a discussion of the first principles of religion. The remainder of the book is filled up with correspondence between Euphues and his friends. We have letters from Euphues to Philautus on the death of Lucilla, to another friend on the death of his daughter, to one Botonio “to take his exile patiently,” and to the youth Alcius, remonstrating with him on his bad behaviour at the university. Finally a pair of letters, the first from Livia “at the emperour’s court to Euphues at Athens,” answered by “Euphues to Livia,” wind up the first part, and announce to us Euphues’s intention of visiting England. An address from Lyly to Lord Delawarr is affixed, to which was added in the second edition “An Address to the Gentlemen Scholars of England.”

Euphues and his England is rather longer than the first part. Euphues and Philautus travel from Naples to England. They arrive at Dover, halt for the night at Fidus’s house at Canterbury, and then proceed to London, where they make acquaintance with Surius, a young English gentleman of great birth and noble blood; Psellus, an Italian nobleman reputed “great in magick”; Martius, an elderly Englishman; Camilla, a beautiful English girl of insignificant family; Lady Flavia and her niece Fraunces. After endless correspondence and conversation on all kinds of topics, Euphues is recalled to Athens, and from there corresponds with his friends. “Euphues’ Glasse for Europe” is a flattering description of England sent to Livia at Naples. It is the most interesting portion of the book, and throws light upon one or two points of Lyly’s own biography. The author naturally seized the opportunity for paying his inevitable tribute to the queen, and pays it in his most exalted style. “O fortunate England that hath such a queene, ungratefull if thou praye not for hir, wicked if thou do not love hir, miserable if thou lose hir!”—and so on. The book ends with Philautus’s announcement of his marriage to Fraunces, upon which Euphues sends characteristic congratulations and retires, “tormented in body and grieved in mind,” to the Mount of Silexedra, “where I leave him to his musing or Muses.”

Such is a brief outline of the book which for a time set the fashion for English prose. Two editions of each part appeared within the first year after publication, and thirteen editions of both are enumerated up to 1636, after which, with the exception of a modernized version in 1718, Euphues was never reprinted until 1868, when Dr Arber took it in hand. The reasons for its popularity are not far to seek. As far as matter was concerned it fell in with all the prevailing literary fashions. Its long disquisitions on love, religion, exile, women or education, on court life and country pleasures, handled all the most favourite topics in the secularized speculation of the time; its foreign background and travel talk pleased a society of which Lyly himself said “trafic and travel hath woven the nature of all nations into ours and made this land like arras full of device which was broadcloth full of workmanship”; and, although Lyly steered clear in it of the worst classical pedantries of the day, the book was more than sufficiently steeped in classical learning, and based upon classical material, to attract a literary circle which was nothing if not humanist. A large proportion of its matter indeed was drawn from classical sources. The general tone of sententious moralizing may be traced to Plutarch, from whom the treatise on education, “Euphues and his Ephoebus,” and that on exile, “Letter to Botonio to take his exile patiently,” are literally translated, as well as a number of other shorter passages either taken direct from the Latin versions or from some of the numerous English translations of Plutarch then current. The innumerable illustrations based upon a kind of pseudo natural history are largely taken from Pliny, while the mythology is that of Virgil and Ovid.

It was not the matter of Euphues, however, so much as the style which made it famous (see Euphuism). The source of Lyly’s peculiar style has been traced by Dr Landmann (Der Euphuismus, sein Wesen, seine Quelle, seine Geschichte, &c. Giessen, 1881) to the influence of Don Antonio de Guevara, whose Libro Aureo de Marco Aurelio (1529)—a sort of historical romance based upon Plutarch and upon Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the object of which was to produce a “mirror for princes,” of the kind so popular throughout the Renaissance—became almost immediately popular in England. The first edition, or rather a French version of it, was translated into English by Lord Berners in 1531, and published in 1534. Before 1560 twelve editions of Lord Berners’s translation had been printed, and before 1578 six different translators of this and later works of Guevara had appeared. The translation, however, which had most influence upon English literature was that by North, the well-known translator of Plutarch, in 1557, called The Dial for Princes, Compiled by the Reverend Father in God Don Antony of Guevara, Byshop of Guadix, &c., Englished out of the Frenche by Th. North. The sententious and antithetical style of the Dial for Princes is substantially that of Euphues, though Guevara on the whole handles it better than his imitator, and has many passages of real force and dignity. The general plan of the two books is also much the same. In both the biography is merely a peg on which to hang moral disquisitions and treatises. The use made of letters is the same in both. Even the names of some of the characters are similar. Thus Guevara’s Lucilla is the flighty daughter of Marcus Aurelius. Lyly’s Lucilla is the flighty daughter of Ferardo, governor of Naples; Guevara’s Livia is a lady at the court of Marcus Aurelius, Lyly’s Livia is a lady at the court “of the emperor,” of whom no further description is given. The 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th chapters of the Dial for Princes suggested the discussion between Euphues and Atheos. The letter from Euphues to Alcius is substantially the same in subject and treatment as that from Marcus Aurelius to his nephew Epesipo. Both Guevara and Lyly translated Plutarch’s work De educatione liberorum, Lyly, however, keeping closer than the Spanish author to the original. The use made by Lyly of the university of Athens was an anachronism in a novel intended to describe his own time. He borrowed it, however, from Guevara, in whose book a university of Athens was of course entirely in place. The “cooling card for all fond lovers” and the address to the ladies and gentlemen of Italy have their counterparts among the miscellaneous letters by Guevara affixed by North to the Dial for Princes; and other instances of Lyly’s use of these letters, and of two other treatises by Guevara on court and country life, could be pointed out.

Lyly was not the first to appropriate and develop the Guevaristic style. The earliest book in which it was fully adopted was A petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, by George Pettie, which appeared in 1576, a production so closely akin to Euphues in tone and style that it is difficult to believe it was not by Lyly. Lyly, however, carried the style to its highest point, and made it the dominant literary fashion. His principal followers in it were Greene, Lodge and Nash, his principal opponent Sir Philip Sidney; the Arcadia in fact supplanted Euphues, and the Euphuistic taste proper may be said to have died out about 1590 after a reign of some twelve years. According to Landmann, Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost is a caricature of the Italianate and pedantic fashions of the day, not of the peculiar style of Euphues. The only certain allusion in Shakespeare to the characteristics of Lyly’s famous book is to be found in Henry IV., where Falstaff, playing the part of the king, says to Prince Hal, “Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time, but also how thou art accompanied; for, though the camomile the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth the more it is wasted the sooner it wears.” Here the pompous antithesis is evidently meant to caricature the peculiar Euphuistic sentence of court parlance.  (M. A. W.) 

See Lyly’s Complete Works, ed. R. W. Bond (3 vols., 1902); Euphues, from early editions, by Edward Arber (1868); A. W. Ward, English Dramatic Literature, i. 151; J. P. Collier, History of Dramatis Poetry, iii. 172; “John Lilly and Shakespeare,” by C. C. Hense in the Jahrbuch der deutschen Shakesp. Gesellschaft, vols. vii. and viii. (1872, 1873); F. W. Fairholt, Dramatic Works of John Lilly (2 vols., 1858); Shakespeare’s Euphuism, by W. L. Rushton; H. Morley, “Euphuism” in the Quarterly Review (1861); R. W. Bond, “John Lyly, Novelist and Dramatist,” in the Quarterly Review (Jan. 1896); J. A. Symonds, Shakespeare’s Predecessors (1883); J. D. Wilson, John Lyly (Cambridge, 1905); A. Ainger, “Euphuism,” in Lectures and Essays (1905); and Albert Feuillerat, John Lyly. Contribution à l’histoire de la Renaissance en Angleterre (1910).

  1. The evidence for his authorship may be found in Gabriel Harvey’s Pierce’s Supererogation (written November 1589, published 1593), in Nash’s Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596), and in various allusions in Lyly’s own plays. See Fairholt’s Dramatic Works of John Lilly, i. 20.