1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Samuel Nicholson

John Payne Collier, "Acolastus his After-witte" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 3:58-60.



A very rare book in all senses of the word, for it is not only extremely scarce, (we never heard of more than two copies of it,) but it is one of the rarest and most barefaced pieces of plagiarism in our language. The last edition of Lowndes' Bibl. Man. (p. 1687) tells us simply, that it is "remarkable as containing some parallel passages to Shakspeare"; but the fact is that Samuel Nicholson, who put it forth in his own name, has been guilty of the most scandalous literary thefts and unacknowledged appropriations. He might well call it "after-wit," inasmuch as it contains the wit of many poets who had gone before him; and the name of Acolastus seems to have been properly chosen, because he was unpunished for his delinquencies. He has robbed Shakspeare most especially, and the passages Nicholson has inserted as his own are not so much parallel as identical. In many instances he has not attempted disguise, but has impudently claimed credit for what he had as impudently purloined. He may well, in the dedication "to his deare Achates Master Richard Warburton," call his poem "unblushing lines, the first borne of my barren invention," which had been "begotten in my anticke age." What shall we say of the following, but that they are almost the very words of Shakspeare's Lucrece.

Guiltie thou art of murther, rape and theft,
Guiltie of bribery and subornation,
Guiltie of treason, perjurie and shift, &c.

What are Shakspeare's lines?

Guilty thou art of murder and of theft,
Guilty of perjury and subornation,
Guilty of treason, forgery and shift.

All that Nicholson has here done is to use "bribery" for perjury, and "perjurie" for forgery; every other word in the three lines was stolen. Again he begins a stanza thus:—

Hence, idle words, servants to shallow braines
Unfruitful sounds, wind-wasting arbitrators.

What is this but what Shakspeare had written, when he makes Lucrece exclaim,—

Out, idle words, servants to shallow fools,
Unprofitable sounds, weak arbitrators, &c.

And so Nicholson treats many other notorious passages, making us wonder how he could imagine, in regard to a poem which in 1600 had passed through at least three editions, that he should escape detection. We might easily select similar plagiarisms from Venus and Adonis, as well as from more than one of Shakspeare's plays, though Nicholson did not make quite so free with the latter as he had done with his poems. We will take a single specimen from another poet, in the lines,—

If on the earth there may be found a Hell,
Within my soule her severall torments dwell.

This is a couplet from so celebrated a production as T. Nash's Pierce Penniless, 1592, where he exclaims,—

Divines and dying men may talke of hell,
But in my heart her severall torments dwell.

It is hardly worth while to pursue this part of the subject, or indeed to say much regarding a production which contains, such proofs of literary dishonesty: it reads exactly as if the writer, for the sake of a joke, were trying an experiment on public credulity; and if we elsewhere find stanzas that run tolerably well, it is impossible to say from whence their excellence may not have been stolen. It is out of the question to give such an unconscionable thief credit for any originality. There is, in fact, no design in Nicholson's Acolastus: if anything, it may be looked upon as a pastoral discussion between two shepherds, Acolastus and Eugenius, on the subject of love and the falsehood of the female heart. In the course of the debate we meet with the subsequent stanza, which is not amiss in itself, but, while copying it, we feel sure that the simile has been borrowed:—

Heart-slaine with lookes I fell upon the ground:
Her meaning strooke me ere her words were done;
As weapons meete before they make a sound,
Or as the deadly bullet of a gunne:
Yet all my passions had no power to move her,
But thus she rates me that so much did love her.

In the first five or six pages we detect no material plagiarism, but as the author proceeds he seems to come to the end of his own resources, and then his unavowed obligations begin. It is from near the commencement that we take the following:—

In the May moneth of my blooming yeares,
Living in pleasures, ease and hearts content,
New am I forced to lament with teares
Contempt of dutie, and my time mispent:
O thou from whom repentant humours grow,
Raise in mine eyes an everlasting flow!

It is not easy to make out whether Nicholson, at the time he wrote, was an old or a young man: his subject is sufficiently juvenile, but he more than once speaks of his "anticke age," and perhaps he wrote as an old man what he had felt when a young one.