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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Fad of Euphuism
by Long, William J.

The "high fantastical" style, ever since called euphuistic, created a sensation. The age was given over to extravagance and the artificial elegance of Euphues seemed to match the other fashions. Just as Elizabethan men and women began to wear grotesque ruffs about their necks as soon as they learned the art of starching from the Dutch, so now they began to decorate their writing with the conceits of Lyly. [Footnote: Lyly did not invent the fashion; he carried to an extreme a tendency towards artificial writing which was prevalent in England and on the Continent. As is often the case, it was the extreme of fashion that became fashionable.] Only a year after Euphues appeared, Spenser published The Shepherd's Calendar, and his prose notes show how quickly the style, like a bad habit, had taken possession of the literary world. Shakespeare ridicules the fashion in the character of Holofernes, in Love's Labor's Lost, yet he follows it as slavishly as the rest. He could write good prose when he would, as is shown by a part of Hamlet's speech; but as a rule he makes his characters speak as if the art of prose were like walking a tight rope, which must be done with a balancing pole and some contortions. The scholars who produced the translation of the Scriptures known as the Authorized Version could certainly write well; yet if you examine their Dedication, in which, uninfluenced by the noble sincerity of the Bible's style, they were free to follow the fashion, you may find there the two faults of Elizabethan prose; namely, the habit of servile flattery and the sham of euphuism.

Among prose writers of the period the name that appears most frequently is that of Philip Sidney (1554-1586). He wrote one of our first critical essays, An Apologie for Poetrie (cir. 1581), the spirit of which may be judged from the following:

"Nowe therein of all sciences ... is our poet the monarch. For he dooth not only show the way but giveth so sweete a prospect into the way as will intice any man to enter into it. Nay, he dooth, as if your journey should be through a faire vineyard, at the first give you a cluster of grapes, that, full of that taste, you may long to passe further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse; but hee cometh to you with words set in delightfull proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the well enchaunting skill of musicke; and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you,--with a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner."

Sidney wrote also the pastoral romance Arcadia which was famous in its day, and in which the curious reader may find an occasional good passage, such as the prayer to a heathen god, "O All-seeing Light,"--a prayer that became historic and deeply pathetic when King Charles repeated it, facing death on the scaffold. That was in 1649, more than half a century after Arcadia was written:

"O all-seeing Light, and eternal Life of all things, to whom nothing is either so great that it may resist or so small that it is contemned, look upon my miserie with thine eye of mercie, and let thine infinite power vouchsafe to limite out some proportion of deliverance unto me, as to thee shall seem most convenient. Let not injurie, O Lord, triumphe over me, and let my faults by thy hands be corrected, and make not mine unjuste enemie the minister of thy justice. But yet, my God, if in thy wisdome this be the aptest chastisement for my inexcusable follie; if this low bondage be fittest for my over-hie desires; if the pride of my not-inough humble hearte be thus to be broken, O Lord, I yeeld unto thy will, and joyfully embrace what sorrow thou wilt have me suffer."


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