This production reminds us much of Spenser's Mother Hubberds Tale, and, perhaps, but for that satirical apologue, The Beggars Ape might never have been written. The opening by Niccols is extremely like that of Spenser, and he fixes upon exactly the same season of the year, when, as Spenser says,—
the hot Syrian Dog on him awayting,
After the chafed Lyons cruell bayting, &c.;
When the fierce Dog of Heaven begun to rise
To bait the Lyon in th' Olympian skies.
Of course the merit of the two poems is not at all equal; and Spenser's Tale, besides, was the original; but Niccols was a considerable master of versification, and his thoughts, if not striking from their novelty, are natural, and happily expressed.
There is no name on the title-page, nor in any other part of the poem, but we know it to have been by Niccols on his own confession. In 1610 be published his continuation of The Mirror for Magistrates, under the title of a Winter Nights Vision; and the first lines of his Introduction to it are these:—
"My Muse that mongst meane birds whilome did wave her flaggie wing,
And Cuckcow-like of Castaes wrongs in rustick tunes did sing,
Now with the mornes cloud-climing Lark must mount a pitch more his,
And like Joves bird with stedfast lookes outbrave the Sunnes bright eie:
Yea, she that whilome begger-like her beggers ape did sing,
Which, injur'd by the guilt of time, to light she durst not bring,
In stately stile, tragedian-like, with sacred furie fed,
Must now record the tragicke deeds of great Heroes dead.
Here we see not only his Cuckow, but his Beggars Ape mentioned by name and avowed. The first was published in 1607 as "by Richardus Niccols"; and we may, we think, presume that his Beggars Ape had also been printed about that date, but withdrawn from circulation on account of the offence it could hardly fail to have given, owing to what the author above calls "the guilt of time"; i.e., the vices of the period, and the personal and political application his courageous lines would unquestionably have received. We therefore only know it by the anonymous impression, or reprint, as we imagine, of 1627, when a new king was on the throne, who perhaps would not resent the character of the Lion-King given to his father. It certainly could not, with the Lion's hunting and other propensities, be easily mistaken, nor that of the Elephant for the aged and careful Lord Treasurer Dorset, who died in 1608.
The measure and method adopted by Spenser were also employed by Niccols, and he was further an imitator by a proneness to the introduction of antiquated words and forms. He commences with these couplets:—
About that Moneth whose name at first begun
From great Augustus, that Romes empire wonne,
When the fierce Dog of Heaven began to rise,
To baite the Lyon in th' Olympian skies;
Whose hot fire-breathing influence did cracke
With too much heate our aged Grandames backs,
Lapping up rivers with his blaring tongue,
T' allay the thirst which his proud stomacke stung:
Then did each creature languish pant and beate
Under the influence of this horrid heate;
And I, that oft in my low seated cell
Had felt the burning of his fury fell,
Upon a time, Aurora shining faire,
Went forth to take the solace of the aire.
The construction of the fable is inartistic and defective; for while Niccols is walking in the neighborhood of London, overcome by the heat, he takes shelter under some trees. He hears voices not far off; and discovers (without being discovered) that they proceed from a company of beggars, who are resting under the side of a small hill. He creeps quietly towards them, and, keeping a little rising ground between himself and them, overhears an old mendicant tell the tale of an Ape and a Fox, and the tricks and frauds they committed at the Court of the Lion. Now, it is very unlikely that a beggar should have been acquainted with the practices and secrets of palaces, and still more unlikely that he should have been able to narrate them in such language as is put into his mouth. Moreover, the conduct of the characters is often violently inconsistent with their natural habits; and in one place the Ass, who plays a principal part in the commencement of the apologue, is represented as feeding upon
His Courtly dyet, fraught with many a dish
Of divers kindes of dainty flesh and fish.
Even in the license allowed to this species of writing, the more the habits of the creatures are represented as conformable to their real condition the better; and this is a circumstance to which Niccols has not sufficiently attended. When hungry Bottom is transformed into an Ass (M. N. D., Act IV. sc. 1) he indulges in the gratifying prospect of a bundle of "sweet hay." One of the incidents, which could not have failed to excite the anger of King James, is, that the Lion-King is made to knight the Ass, with corresponding remarks by the author on the facility with which that honor was obtained by fools and rogues. After the Ass has been thus dignified, we are told:—
For when the doultish beast ycleped was
Through all the Court by name of hight Sir Asse,
Puft up with pride, he thought himselfe to bee
The fairest beast that ever eye did see:
He learned had to praunce with stately pace,
To rayre his Asses head with lefty grace,
And in each point himselfe so high to beare,
As if that he some noble Palfray were.
Which pride of his was laughed so to scorne
Of every beast that knew him to be borne
Of base descent; yet he through want of wit,
Swolne proud by wealth, such folly did commit,
That he their common Gull accounted was,
And bore the title of the golden Asse.
Such language would not have been very welcome to King James, who had made so many hundred "beggarly Knights," and who created the order of Baronets for the express purpose of filling his pocket.
The latter half of The Beggars Ape aims at higher game, and enters into the field of politics equally offensively; for there we are shown how the poor were oppressed by the rich, and how the innocent, in the persons of the Ox and the Sheep, by the cunning of the Fox and the Ape, were accused of the most heinous crimes against state and government. The false accusations were, however, in the end detected by the Elephant, (as we have said, in all probability meant for Lord Dorset,) who calls upon the Fox to substantiate his charges upon oath:—
The booke was brought; but, loe! eternall Jove,
Who by his power protecteth from above
The cause of innocence, with dreadfull frowne
From Heav'ns high Pallace cast his count'nance downe,
And as the Fox his oath began to take,
As Jove but stirr'd hee made Olympus shake,
And thundring horribly above the skie,
Through th' ayre he made a sulphurie flash to flie,
Which fell upon the Foxe for his foule sinne.
The Fox is, however, not deservedly destroyed, but his skin is merely singed to the rusty brown it still bears, while the sulphurous smell, living or dead, constantly adhered to it. The Ape was only driven back to his native woods and wilds; so that it cannot be said that any poetical justice is done to the criminals. The last lines are these:—
So did the Beggar bluntly end his Tale;
In which your pardon I crave, if ought I faile:
And if in reading beggerly you hold it,
Dislike it not because a Begger told it.
We have gone the more at large into the contents of this clever, though somewhat inconsistent poem, because we are not aware that it has before been criticised. On the title-page is a large woodcut of a monkey, (not an ape, for it has a long tail,) which, very possibly, the publisher had by him, and thought it would here answer the purpose. It has generally been stated that the late Mr. Heber was the first to discover that The Beggar's Ape was by Niccols. It may be so; but our information upon the point, it is only just to say, was derived from the late Thomas Rodd, the learned bookseller, at least forty years ago. We think that Heber, like ourselves, was indebted to Rodd.