Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2018

Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, by John Lyly (Or, why 1001 Books sometimes gets it horribly wrong)

I have been plodding my way through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition) in a rather desultory way, but since the years are ticking by I decided that I would aim not to complete the entire list but rather deal with it section by section.

The book is divided into

  • Pre 1700 (13 books)
  • 1700s (46 books)
  • 1800s (157 books)
  • 1900s (716 books)
  • 2000s (which ends at 2006 so there’s only 69 books).

You won’t be surprised to learn that yours truly has read more of the 1900s than any other section since I began my reading life with the English classics and moved on to the Russians, and in recent years have read a fair few French and German classics as well.

Since I have already read 6 titles from the Pre 1700 list, it seemed like a good idea to tackle it first and tick it off my list.  I read some of them long ago anyway: Aesop’s Fables, The Thousand and One Nights, The Unfortunate Traveller, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and more recently Don Quixote, and Oroonoko.  But I have not had much luck with the others: I persisted with Gargantua and Pantagruel on the Kindle for much longer than I should have, but when I got to 20% and was still bored brainless by it, I abandoned it and too bad that the history of the modern novel begins with Rabelais. 

Today I have decided not to persist with Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit by John Lyle.  It is just dreadful.

Described in 1001 Books as relentless in its display of verbal affectation, comprising a sort of ludicrous handbook of grand expressions and apothegms [a concise saying or maxim; an aphorism] with a negligible plot with moralising twists and countertwists, it is suggested by the optimistic author of its summary (Keston Sutherland) as fascinating for the non-specialist reader because of its great dexterity in handling and varying the conventional exempla of courtly speech.  

This dexterity smothers the impulse of any type of genuine literary originality – a quality which would be later prized as the single most important criterion of great literature.  This is the sort of verbal ostentation and intricacy that would come to be the most detested both by the pious authors of the Protestant Reformation and by Romantics such as Samuel Coleridge, for whom skill in the manipulation of conceits stood as evidence of either a corrupted intelligence or a heart cynically detached from its pen.  (p.31)

I’m with Coleridge.

I might have more luck with The Princess of Cleves by La Fayette…


  1. I’m with you on this. You know I’m not a knowledgeable academic and I can tell you you’re safe with La princesse de Clèves.

    • Thank goodness for that! Do you think I could read it in French (in an edition with modernised French?)

      • You probably could read it in French as long as it’s modernized French. It’s a short book, it helps.
        In any case, it must be available for free on the kindle, so you have nothing to lose if you try it in French.

        • Yes, I think I already have it in English on the Kindle, I’ll do a search for a French version.

          • I hope you’ll be fine with the French.
            I’m reading Marcus Clarke and I struggle with ship vocabulary. Like Poop Guard, I eventually guessed that poop must be the English for poupe. But at first, poop guard is kind of funny, no?

            • Ha, I don’t know too much ship vocabulary either, not when it comes to sailing ships of the 18th century.
              I always thought that the poop deck was that high deck at the back, so I suppose a poop guard would be either the sailor who’s guarding it, or a guard rail to stop people falling off it and into the water…

  2. It;s funny how someone’s positive description of a book can actually act as a big warning sign.

    • I should have known from Sutherland’s use of “apothegms” when “aphorism” would surely have done just as well, and not required the use of a dictionary…

  3. Euphues is interesting to me in an academic sense because it’s where Shakespeare got a lot of his habits of wordplay from; “euphuism” is the name for that twisty rapid-fire punning banter that he does, the kind that doesn’t always make a ton of sense (although when it does, it’s great). I’m not sure I could stick a whole book of it, though.

    • Yes, that’s what it says in 1001 Books, but, as you say, recommending that hapless readers trudge their way through 500-odd pages of it, is another thing again…

      • A lot of 1001 Books seems to be more an overview of Things That Were Significant in English Literature than a list of Absolute Essential Must-Reads…

        • Well yes, and (if I remember correctly) they do say in the intro that it’s about the development of the novel.

      • Parenthetically, I wonder whether the genius of Shakespeare was in realising that Lyly’s rhetorical style was a lot of fun to *listen* to. The euphuistic parts of Shakespeare plays are often the bits of dialogue that generate the most energy in a theatre, and also the ones that are the worst puzzlers when you’re reading the text. (I’m thinking of the banter between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado, which isn’t the best example, partly because it’s not actually hard to follow when you’re reading, but it’s the only one I’m coming up with right now…)

        • Yes, good point. I remember my first Shakespeare play as a revelation, compared to reading the script.

          • Honestly, why schoolchildren are made to *read* him is beyond me – a first introduction should surely consist of seeing a show!

            • Well… if they still teach Shakespeare, and I’m not sure they do, perhaps they do start with a show…even if it’s just a DVD of a film version.
              Teaching methods have changed a lot, I think.

              • They do still teach him, at least in American high schools. We generally got an actual real-life version of the play at the end of our period of study, instead of at the beginning!

                • Here I think it depends whether students do English, or English Lit.

  4. Good for you for trying – I never got much further than the first page. As Elle says above, though, the text did influence later writers. Mind you, he was aware of the pitfalls of the florid style – look at Polonius and other flatterers and fops

    • Yes, 1001 Books says that too, that Lyle was aware of the criticism and ignored it. And the book was popular in its own time apparently.
      But my point is that while the book has obvious value for scholars or people who want to delve into what may have influenced Shakespeare, 1001 Books is meant to be for readers exactly like me, not academics. I’m interested in reading widely from the best of what’s around, from what is widely known as well as more obscure, and open to challenging works. (Finnegans Wake is listed, along with lesser lights such as Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day). I read The Pilgrim’s Progress long ago at university and I believe it deserves its place in 1001 Books, and so do The Unfortunate Traveller, Don Quixote and Oroonoko. But I can’t help feeling that Rabelais and Lyle were included because this section looked a bit thin…

  5. I hope you are going to enjoy The Princess of Cleves, Lisa. It’s years since I read it but I recall is gave me a great deal of pleasure.

    • I have it on my Kindle, but I think I might get a print copy instead. In French, If my guide and mentor Emma thinks I could manage it…

  6. […] In my last post I moaned about the inclusion of unreadable stodge in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is essential reading IMO.  I wish I’d read it before reading The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey because that is a ‘found document’ too, and I shall read Gerald Murnane’s fiction with a different eye now too, because he too writes fiction that isn’t fiction, in quasi-autobiographical books that defy the label ‘novel’. […]

  7. […] there are other reasons not to finish a book.  Recently I abandoned Eupheus’ The Anatomy of Wit by John Lyly.  I don’t think that a listing in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die counts as hype, […]

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