1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas May

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 196-97.



THOMAS MAY, whom Dr. Johnson has proclaimed the best Latin poet of England, was the son of Sir Thomas May, of Mayfield in Sussex. During the earlier part of his public life he was encouraged at the court of Charles the First, inscribed several poems to his majesty, as well as wrote them at his injunction, and received from Charles the appellation of "his poet." During this connection with royalty he wrote his five dramas, translated the Georgics and Pharsalia, continued the latter in English as well as Latin, and by his imitation of Lucan acquired the reputation of a modern classic in foreign countries. It were much to be wished, that on siding with the parliament in the civil wars, he had left a valedictory testimony of regret for the necessity of opposing, on public grounds, a monarch who had been personally kind to him. The change was stigmatized as ungrateful, if the account given by his enemies can be relied on, that it was owing to the king's refusal of the laureateship, or of a pension — for the story is told in different ways. All that can be suggested in May's behalf is, that no complimentary dedications could pledge his principles on a great question of public justice, and that the motives of an action are seldom traced with scrupulous truth, where it is the bias of the narrator to degrade the action itself. Clarendon, the most respectable of his accusers, is exactly in this situation. He begins by praising his epic poetry as among the best in our language, and inconsistently concludes by pronouncing that May deserves to be forgotten.

The parliament, from whatever motive he embraced their cause, appointed him their secretary and historiographer. In this capacity he wrote his Breviary, which Warburton pronounces "a just composition according to the rules of history." It breaks off, much to the loss of the history of that time, just at the period of the Self-denying Ordinance. Soon after this publication he went to bed one night in apparent health, having drank freely, and was found dead in the morning. His death was ascribed to his nightcap being tied too tightly under his chin. Andrew Marvel imputes it to the cheerful bottle. Taken together, they were no bad recipe for suffocation. The vampire revenge of his enemies in digging him up from his grave, is an event too notorious in the history of the Restoration. They gave him honourable company in the sacrilege, namely, that of Blake.

He has ventured in narrative poetry on a similar difficulty to that Shakespeare encountered in the historical drama, but it is unnecessary to show with how much less success. Even in that department, he has scarcely equalled Daniel or Drayton.