Euphuism (Prose Style)

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Euphuism is an elaborately patterned prose style, characterized in particular by the extensive use of similes and metaphors, parallelism, alliteration, and antithesis. Adjective: euphuistic. Also called Asianism and aureate diction.

"Euphuism is about infinite expansion," says Katharine Wilson. "A single thought can breed analogies, anecdotes, intellectual choices, and printed pages" ("'Turne Your Library to a Wardrope': John Lyly and Euphuism" in The Oxford Handbook of English Prose 1500-1640, 2013).

 

The term euphuism (from the Greek, "to grow, bring forth") is derived from the name of the hero in John Lyly's ornately florid Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1579).

Euphuism is not related to euphemism, a more common term.

Commentary

  • "The freshest colours soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas: which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit, being like wax, apt to receive any impression, and bearing the head in his own hand, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict; who, preferring fancy before friends and his present humour before honour to come, laid reason in water, being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth." (John Lyly, from Euphues, 1579)
  • "Nothing daunted at the staunch refusal of different divines, whose modest walk was interrupted by their bold assertion of loathsome rights, they moved on, while laughs of hidden rage and defeat flitted across their doll-decked faces, to die as they next accosted some rustic-looking critics, who, tempted with their polished twang, their earnest advances, their pitiful entreaties, yielded, in their ignorance of the ways of a large city, to their glossy offers, and accompanied, with slight hesitation, these artificial shells of immorality to their homes of ruin, degradation and shame." (Amanda McKittrick Ros, Delina Delaney, 1898)

    Euphuism and Rhetoric

    "The historians tell us that that Euphuism is older than Euphues, but they have failed to notice that the English study of rhetoric provides a much better indication of its origin than do the imagined influences of Italy and Spain. . . . Now, the recipe, so to speak, of Euphuism is to be found in The Arte of Rhetorique [1553]. By this is not meant that we claim that [Thomas] Wilson's book taught Lyly his secret; only that it was through the fashionable study of rhetoric in the literary coteries of the time that this manner of writing was evolved. Examples of what is meant abound in this book."

    (G.H. Mair, introduction to Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1909)

    Euphuism and Tacit Persuasion Patterns

    "The locus classicus for the tacit persuasion patterns we have been discussing is a linguistically lunatic Elizabethan short novel, John Lyly's Euphues. . . . The book consists mostly of moralizing speeches, couched in a style so full of antithesis, isocolon, climax and alliteration that it comes to be about tacit persuasion patterns. . . .

    "[A] reader of Lyly is so conditioned to antitheses that he starts to make them at the least suggestion. Chiasmus as well as double-isocolon has become a way of perceiving.

    . . .

    "[Lyly] didn't have anything new to say. In his moral world, nothing new was left to say. How make a splash, then? You let the tacit persuasion patterns generate the meaning for you. Finding yourself with nothing to say, you deliver yourelf methodically into the arms of chance. And so Euphues, whatever help it may provide for prodigal sons, comes to be a pattern-book of tacit persuasion. . . .

    "We see better illustrated here than in any other prose style I know the back-pressure form exerts on thought. Vernon Lee, an acute student of English style, once called syntax 'the cast left by long repeated acts of thought.' Lyly stood this observation on its head, 'thought' becoming the cast left by infinitely repeated tacit persuasion patterns."

    (Richard A. Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2003)

    Further Reading