A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview
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Elizabethan and seventeenth-century prose

Quite apart from books which directly contributed to the development of the novel and which we shall consider later, there were many influential prose works written in this period that must necessarily interest us if only for the fact that they fed the minds of the reading public that included the great poets and dramatists we have been considering. As in all ages, some of the most successful books were much less than masterpieces. John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578), and its sequel, Euphues and His England (1580), achieved great notoriety. Though they were ostensibly prose romances, the narrative element is a thin skeleton clothed with dialogue, discourses and didactic letters. Succeeding sections have such titles as ‘How the lyfe of a young man should be ledde’ and ‘Of the education of youth’; but the moralizing is shallow, and Lyly has no claim to be considered a serious thinker. It was his style that ‘caught on’, and gave us the words euphuism and euphuistic. It is highly artificial, abounding in balanced antitheses or pseudo-antitheses, and it is cluttered with pretentious allusions, mythological and pseudo-scientific:

The Spider weaveth a fine web to hang the Fly, the Wolfe weareth a faire face to devour the Lambe, the Mirlin striketh at the Partridge, the Eagle often snappeth at the Fly, men are always laying baites for women, which are the weaker vessels: but as yet I could never heare man by such snares to entrappe man: For true it is that men themselves have by use observed, yat it must be a harde Winter when one wolfe eateth another.

The style was widely taken up by the gallants and provoked both appreciative and parodic imitation in literature.

Among the books which give a first-hand account of Elizabethan


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A Short History of English Literature


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