The following biography is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.
John Lyly, the Euphuist, "the witty, comical, facetiously quick and unparalleled John Lyly," was the first extensive English writer of comedies. He produced no fewer than nine pieces--one in blank verse, seven in prose, and one in rhyme. The Woman in the Moon (which is in blank verse, and which he calls "his first dream in Phoebus' holy bower," though not printed till 1597); Alexander and Campaspe (printed in 1584); Sappho and Phao (1584); Endymion (1591); Galathea (1592); Midas (1592); Mother Bombie (1594); The Maid's Metamorphosis (in rhyme and only probably his, 1600); Love's Metamorphosis (1601).
Lyly's plays are the sort of gay, fantastic, insubstantial things that may catch widely as a transient fashion, but are too extravagant to receive sympathy from more than one generation: critics in general set their heels on his delicate constructions. His plays were acted by the children of the Revels, and he would seem to have indulged in airy and childish caprices of fancy to match. Perhaps he wrote with an abiding consciousness that ladies were to make the chief part of his audience, and thought only of bringing smiles to their faces with pretty quibbles and mildly sentimental or childishly jocular situations. In Endymion, Tellus expresses surprise that Corsites, being a captain, "who should sound nothing but terror, and suck nothing but blood," talks so softly and politely. "It agreeth not with your calling," she says, "to use words so soft as that of love." And Corsites replies with the utmost urbanity--"Lady, it were unfit of wars to discourse with women, into whose minds nothing can sink but smoothness." In accordance with this idea, Lyly's subjects, except in Alexander and Campaspe and Mother Bombie, are mythological and pastoral: and in none of them is any deep feeling excited. He is careful not to alarm his courtly audience with the prospect of terrible consequences: the stream of incidents moves with very slight interruptions to a happy conclusion, enlivened with fantastic love-talk, fantastic moralizings on ambition, war, peace, avarice, illicit love, and other commonplaces, and the pranks and puns of mischievous vivacious boys. The fabric is so slight and artificial that we are in danger of undervaluing the powers of the workman, who was a most ingenious and original man, and deserved all the adjectives of his publisher. His plays are vessels filled to the brim with sparkling liquor, which stands to Shakespeare's comedy in the relation of lemonade to champagne. The whole thing is a sort of ginger-pop intoxication; with airy bubbles of fanciful conceits winking all over.
If there is no extravagance of passion in Lyly, there is the utmost extravagance of ingenious fancy. Wit being defined as an ingenious and unexpected play upon words, Lyly's comedies are full of it. There is hardly a sentence in the whole of them that does not contain some pun, or clever antithesis, or far-fetched image. He is so uninterruptedly witty that he destroys his own wit: the play on words and images ceases to be unexpected, and so falls out of definition. Yet a little of it is very pretty even now; and if we could call up the Children of the Chapel Royal to fire off his crackers, and poise his glittering conceits, and imagine ourselves listening with the much-flattered Cynthia, we might conceive the possibility of sitting out a whole comedy with pleased faces.
Lyly carries his love of contrast and delicate symmetrical arrangement into the structure of his plays, scene being balanced against scene, and character against character. In Alexander and Campaspe, his first published play, he attempted, after the model of Edwards's Damon and Pythias, more substantial characters than he afterwards produced in his mythological and pastoral conceptions. One of his most elaborate and characteristic personages is Sir Tophas, in Endymion, a fat, vainglorious, foolish squire, who struts about armed with weapons of sport, and breathing out bloodthirsty sentiments against wrens, blackbirds, sheep, and other such harmless enemies. Sir Tophas is the Falstaff of children, reminding us of the story that Shakespeare when a boy used to kill a calf with an air: he has also points of resemblance with Pistol, Holofernes, and Don Armado. He has a little follower Epiton, like Armado's Moth, with whom he holds discourses, and he falls in love with Dipsas, as Armado with Jaquenetta.
EPITON: Here, sir.
TOPHAS: I brook not this idle humour of love; it tickles not my liver, from whence lovemongers in former ages seemed to infer it should proceed.
EPITON: Love, sir, may lie in your lungs, and I think it doth, and that is the cause you blow and are so pursy.
TOPHAS: Tush, boy; I think it is but some device of the poet to get money.
EPITON: A poet; what's that?
TOPHAS: Dost thou not know what a poet is?
TOPHAS: Why, fool, a poet is as much as one should say--a poet. But soft! yonder be two wrens; shall I shoot at them?
EPITON: They are two lads.
TOPHAS: Larks or wrens, I will kill them.
EPITON: Larks? are you blind? they are two little boys.
TOPHAS: Birds or boys, they are but a pittance for my breakfast; therefore have at them, for their brains must as it were embroider my bolts."
The finest things in Lyly's plays are the occasional songs. "Cupid and my Campaspe played" is often quoted, and Sappho's song is hardly less pretty.
- "O cruel Love! on thee I lay
- My curse, which shall strike blind the day;
- Never may sleep with velvet hand
- Charm thine eyes with sacred wand;
- Thy jailors shall be hopes and fears;
- Thy prison-mates groans, sighs, and tears;
- Thy play to wear out weary times
- Fantastic passions, vows, and rhymes;
- Thy bread be frowns; thy drink be gall;
- Such as when you Phao call
- The bed thou liest on by despair;
- Thy sleep, fond dreams: they dreams, long care;
- Hope (like thy fool), at thy bed's head,
- Mock thee, till madness strike thee dead.
- As Phao, thou dost me, with thy proud eyes;
- In thee poor Sappho lives, for thee she dies."
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