John Lyly: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Natarielle Powell
How would you like to be friends with the Queen of England and write plays that tell other people how they should behave? John Lyly did this and more. Read on to learn how.

Early Life

Imagine your mom or dad was an English teacher. Do you think your writing would be better with such a close influence or worse because you would be tired of your grammar being corrected all the time? This was an issue facing John Lyly, whose grandfather was a famous grammarian (a person who studies grammar and also writes about it). But for John, being around such an influence worked out okay -- he ended up becoming a writer himself!

John Lyly was born in 1554 in England. He received his Bachelor's degree (1573) and Master's degree (1575) from Magdalen College. He started his literary career shortly thereafter.

Lyly used a unique style in his writing called euphism (you-fi-sum). This affected type of writing style has a lot of similes (comparisons using the words 'like' or 'as,' as in your hair is as smooth as velvet), alliteration (using multiple words that start with the same letter or the same sound, such as Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers), mythology and nature. Lyle used this writing style in his two novels.


What is something that you think people should know how to do the proper way? Make spaghetti, or raise children, or change a tire? Many authors think they have a clear idea of how a particular task should be completed, and they write books telling us how we should polish up our daily practices.

Lyly's novels were like this. He wrote two novels: Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and His England (1580). He chose the name 'Euphues' because in Greek it means 'well-bred.' These two novels were Lyly's way of telling others how to carry on their daily activities in a more polished way, like well-bred members of society.

The odd thing is that critics did not know if Lyly was actually serious about his suggestions on living a polished lifestyle or if he was poking fun at these practices. Most people took his novels to be more comical than serious.

The Show Must Go On

How would you like to meet a real Queen? Wouldn't it be wonderful to visit her home and say you had tea with the Queen of England? Well, like a lot of modern-day people, Lyly was fascinated with the Queen of England, who at the time was Queen Elizabeth I. And Lyly was fortunate -- he got to meet the object of his fascination. But he wanted more, particularly a position in her court.

Lyly pestered the queen for quite a while about this desire, and her answer did not change: she said no. So he decided to devote all of his attention to writing plays.

Lyly was a partner in the Blackfriars Theater. His first play was produced there in 1583, the same year that he married Beatrice Browne, a member of a very influential family in England. The theater closed in 1584. Lyly continued to produce plays with another group called The Children of St. Paul, which was a professional group of boy actors.

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