1691 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas May

Gerard Langbaine, in Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) 360-65.



This Gentleman was born in Sussex of an ancient but somewhat declining Family, in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. He was for some Years bred a Scholar in the University of Cambridge. During his Abode there, he was a very close Student, and what Stock of Learning he then treasur'd up, is apparent from his Works, which are in print. He remov'd afterwards to London, following the Court, where he contracted Friendship with several Eminent Courtiers, amongst others with the accomplisht Endymion Porter, Esq; One of the Gentlemen of his Majesty's Bedchamber; a Gentleman so dear to Sir William D'Avenant, that he stiled him Lord of his Muse and Heart. Whilst he resided at Court, he writ the five Plays which are extant, and possibly his other Pieces. Dr. Fuller says of him, "That some Disgust at Court was given to, or taken by him, (as some would have it) because his Bays were not guilded richly enough, and Verses rewarded by King Charles, according to expectation." Mr. Philips and Mr. Winstanley insinuate, that being Candidate with Sir William D'Avenant, for the Honourable Title of the Queen's Poet, and being frustrate in his Expectations, out of meer Spleen, as it is thought, for his Repulse, he vented his Spite in his History of the late Civil Wars of England; wherein, Mr. Winstanley says, he shew'd all the Spleen of a Male-contented Poet, making thereby his Friends his Foes, and rendering his Name odious to Posterity. Whether this accusation be true or no, I know not; but I am sure his Enemies must allow him to be a good Poet, tho' possibly he fell short of Sir William D'Avenant: and tho' I no ways abet his self Opinion, yet I learn from Horace, that even Ill Poets, set a value on their Writings, tho' they are despis'd by others;

Ridentur mala qui componunt Carmina, verum
Gaudent Scribentes, & se venerantur ultro,
Si taceas, laudant, quicquid scriptere beati.

And therefore I hope the moderate Critick will bear with the Frailty of our Author: and I doubt not but if they will read his Works with Candor, and especially his Plays, they will find he had some Reason for this Opinion of what he writ. I shall give the Reader a succinct account of his Plays as follows:

Agrippina Empress of Rome, her Tragedy, printed 12mo. Lond. 1639. Our Author has follow'd Xiphilinus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, in the Designing his Tragedy: and besides has translated and inserted above 30. Lines from Petronius Arbyters Satyricon, being a Translation of those Verses recited by Eumolpus, beginning

Orbemjam totum victor Romanus habebat, &c.

and concluding with

—Siculo scarus aequore mersus
Ad mensam vivus perducitur,—

Now altho' this is patly enough apply'd by our Author, he having introduced Nero at a Banquet, commanding Petronius to write a Satyr against those Pleasures he us'd to commend; yet methinks Mr. May, having such a particular Value for Lucan, as to translate his Pharsalia, he should not have inserted what was purposely writ against this particular Work; as may be gather'd from the foregoing Speech, "Ecce Belli Civilis ingens Opus," &c. but rather have left it to such a Man as Douza, who (as a French Author has observ'd) could no longer endure the Fire and Tempest of Lucan, when he read the Taking of Troy; or that little Essay of the War of Pharsalia, which he declar'd to love much better "quam trecenta Cordubensis illius Pharsalicorum versuum Volumina." The first Act of this Play has been ill corrected, four pages of it being printed twice over.

Antigone, the Thebane Princess her Tragedy, printed 8vo. Lond. 1631. and dedicated to the most Worthily Honoured Endymion Porter Esquire. Our Author in the Contexture of this Tragedy has made use of the Antigone of Sophocles, and the Thebais of Seneca. The Reader may see besides Statius's Thebais, &c.

Cleopatra Queen of Aegypt her Tragedy, acted 1626. and printed 12mo. Lond. 1639. and dedicated to the Accomplish'd Sir Kenelme Digby. The Author has follow'd the Historians of those times, as Appian. de Bellis Civilibus lib. 5. Plutarch's Life of M. Anthony, Suetonius's Life of Augustus. Florus lib. 4. Dion, &c. He has borrow'd besides several other Embelishments, as Calimaccus's Epigram upon Timon the Misanthropist; an Account of the Ancient Lybian Psylls, so famous for curing the Venemous Bites of Serpents, by sucking the wound, related by Pliny, lib. 7. c. 2. and by Solinus, &c.

Heir, a Comedy acted by the Company of Revels 1620. printed 4to. Lond. 1633. This Comedy is extreamly commended by the already mention'd Mr. Thomas Carew, in a Copy of Verses affix'd to the Play; where amongst other Commendations bestow'd on the Stile, and the Natural working up of the Passions, he says thus of the Oeconomy of the Play:

The whole Plot doth alike it self disclose,
Thro' the Five Acts, as doth a Lock, that goes
With Letters, for till every one be known,
The Lock's as fast, as if you had found none.

I believe there are few Persons of Judgment that are true lovers of Innocent and inoffensive Comedy, but will allow this to be an Excellent Play.

Old Couple, a Comedy printed 4to. Lond. 1651. This Play is not much short of the former, and is chiefly design'd an Antidote against Covetousness.

Mr. Philips and Mr. Winstanley ascribe two other Plays to our Author, viz. The Old Wives Tale, and Orlando Furioso; the first of these I never saw, but for the latter, I assure my Reader, it was printed long before our Author was born, at least before he was able to guide a Pen, much less to write a Play, it being printed 4to. Lond. 1594.

But tho' he has no more Plays, he has other pieces extant in print; as the Translation of Lucan's Pharsalia 8vo. Lond. 1635. which Poem our Author has continued down to the Death of Julius Caesar, in VII Books both in Latin and English Verse. I have already given you Douza's Character of this Poem, to which I might add that of Scaliger, Rapin, and other Criticks; but this being somewhat forreign to my present Subject, I shall wave it, and content my self with acquainting my Reader, That however pompous and splendid the French Version of Brebeuf has appear'd in France, our English Translation is little inferiour to it; and is extreamly commended by our Famous Johnson, in a Copy of Verses prefix'd before the Book well worth the Reader's perusal. He translated besides Virgil's Georgicks, printed with Annotations 8vo. Lond. 1622. Mr. Philips mentions a History of Henry the Second, writ by him in Verse, and a History of the late Civil Wars of England in Prose; neither of which have I seen, and therefore pretend not to determine whether he were a partial Writer or no. Only give me leave to conclude in the Words of Dr. Fuller; "That if he were a byassed and partial Writer, yet that he lyeth buried near a good and true Historian indeed, viz. Mr. Cambden, in the West-side of the North-Isle of Westminster Abbey, dying suddenly in the Night, A.D. 1652. in the 55th Year of his Age." I know not how Mr. Winstanley happened to omit the Transcript of so memorable a passage, since he has elsewhere borrow'd so largely from this Worthy Author, as well as Mr. Philips, without either of them acknowledging the least obligation to him.