Euphuists wrote in the euphuistic style which derives from the works of John Lyly. The English author's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and his England, published in 1578 and 1580 respectively, employed antithesis, alliteration, and "frequent use of similes drawn from mythology and nature" (Encyclopædia Britannica). In addition to an "excessive use of balance", these traits later appear in a variety of works by authors ranging from Shakespeare to Robert Greene (Encyclopædia Britannica). Written in the form of letters interspersed with discussions on various topics like religion and love, Lyly's romance details how Euphues eventually acquires wisdom. Euphuism offered a lighter and more fanciful form of prose than what had previously appeared. Although it enjoyed great popularity during the Elizabethan era, this popularity did not endure for very long.
Carlyle likely means to compare his contemporaries to the character Euphues rather than to the writers of the style itself. Euphues's search for wisdom parallels the behavior of Carlyle's contemporaries who believed they had already found wisdom when they actually dwelled "in the rush-light of 'closet logic.'" A quotation from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit describes how virtue, and not society, dictates the development of a man:
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. [pp 107]
Lyly's and Carlyle's works both agree that rather than solely relying upon the influences of society, a man's development depends on his own strength of character. Carlyle's essay uses a reference to Lyly's Euphues to criticize the mechanical nature of a society which has come to depend on the intellectual equivalent of an assembly line, sacrificing individual excellence for research teams.
Hart, J.M. Euphuism. Association of Ohio Colleges, 1889.
Lyly, John. Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit; and, Euphues and His England. Manchester University Press, 2003.
"Euphuism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 March 2009
Last modified 1 April 2009