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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Euphuism is a mannered style of English prose, taking its name from works by John Lyly who, however, did not invent the term. It took the form of a preciously ornate and sophisticated style that employed a wide range of literary devices such as antitheses, alliterations, repetitions, rhetorical questions and others. Classical learning and remote knowledge of all kinds were displayed. Euphuism was fashionable in the 1580s, but never previously or subsequently.


Euphues (1580)

"Euphues" is Greek and means "graceful, witty". John Lyly published the works Euphues: The Anatomy of Wyt (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580). Both works illustrated the intellectual fashions and favourite themes of Renaissance society — in a highly artificial and mannered style. Its essential features had already appeared in such works as George Pettie's "A Petite Pallace of Pettie his pleasure" (1576), in sermon literature, and Latin tracts. It was Lyly who perfected the distinctive rhetorical devices on which the style was based.

The euphuistic sentence followed principles of balance and antithesis. John Lyly set up three basic structural principles:

  1. phrases of equal length that appear in succession;
  2. the balance of key verbal elements in successive sentences;
  3. the correspondence of sounds and syllables, especially between words that are already balanced against each other.

Lyly's style influenced Shakespeare (Polonius in Hamlet; Moth in Love's Labour's Lost; Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing). Many critics thought that Lyly overused comparisons as well as alliterations; Philip Sidney and Gabriel Harvey castigated his style. Euphuism was, however, taken up by the Elizabethan writers Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Barnabe Rich.

Contemporary equivalents in other languages

Euphuism was not particular to Britain, a manifestation of some social structure and artistic opportunity unique to that country. There were equivalents in other major European languages, each of which was called by a different name: Culteranismo in Spain, Marinismo in Italy, and Préciosité in France, for example.


It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.
--- Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Euphuism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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