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What Is Euphuism?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the late 1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, English society developed an interest in a style of literature known as Euphuism. Relying on a complex series of literary techniques and verbal elements, this particular style of English prose was intended to entertain through artificial eloquence and ornate language. One key characteristic of Euphuism is the prominent and excessive use of antitheses — the contrasting, contradicting or opposition of ideas — no matter whether each antithesis makes sense. More important than plot or setting, Euphuism is about balancing the cadence, the length of phrases and how sounds within words and sentences correspond.

As a writing style, Euphuism takes its name from the character Euphues, who appears in a series of published works by the English writer, John Lyly. Lyly first published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit in 1578. Then, in 1580, he published Euphues and His England. Both works demonstrated a particularly elaborate choice of literary devices, including antithesis, rhetoric and alliterations, to deliver a precise verbal meter or cadence when read aloud. Members of English society so enjoyed the writing of Lyly that the style quickly became popular among other writers of the time.

Antithesis is central to the Euphuistic writing style, as is rhetorical language. Like rhetoric, Euphuism us known for its elaborate and flowery language. Unlike rhetoric, with its tendency toward insincerity and empty ideas, Euphuism seeks to highlight knowledge of classic literature and science. Alliteration, the use of repetitive initial word sounds within a phrase, also is prominent in this particular style. All literary devices employed in a work of Euphuism are used to intentional excess, with entire phrases of nonsense disguised as elaborate discourse.

The Euphuistic style is characterized by equal-length phrases, balance and sound correspondence, but the storytelling involved was considered, in Elizabethian times, to be of little consequence. Plots, character development and settings were not valued as anything more than a framework to display more interesting topics and interactions. Instead, as members of the Renaissance era, fashionable society was more interested in having the conversations and knowledge of others serve as entertainment. Such preference was especially true regarding matters of love or romance — a favored topic in Euphuism.

England is not the only culture to enjoy such ornate and overly elaborate writing styles. Spain and other European countries enjoyed similar works near the end of the 16th century. Although popular throughout Europe, Euphuism is strictly a 16th century style. Although never again popularized after the 16th century, Euphuistic works influenced the likes of William Shakespeare and provided satirical fodder for Walter Scott.

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