1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas May

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 2:5-7.



Thomas May, a Poet, and historian of the 17th century, was descended of an ancient, but decayed family in the county of Sussex, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and was educated a fellow commoner in Sidney and Sussex College in Cambridge. He afterwards removed to London and lived about the court, where he contracted friendships with several gentleman of fashion and distinction, especially with Endymion Porter esquire, one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber to King Charles I. While he resided at court he wrote five plays, which are extant under his name. In 1622, he published at London, in 8vo. a translation of Virgil's Georgics with annotations; and in 1635, a Poem on King Edward III. It was printed under the title of the Victorious Reign of Edward III. written in seven books, by his Majesty's command. In the dedication to Charles I. our author writes thus; "I should humbly have craved your Majesty's pardon for my omission of the latter part of King Edward's reign, but that the sense of mine own defects hath put me in mind of a most necessary suit, so beg forgiveness for that part which is here written. Those great actions of Edward III. are the arguments of this poem, which is here ended, where his fortune began to decline, where the French by revolts, and private practices regained that which had been won from them by eminent and famous victories; which times may afford fitter observations for an acute historian in prose, than strains of heighth for an heroic poem." The poem thus begins,

The third, and greatest Edward's reign we sing,
The high achievements of that martial King,
Where long successful prowesse did advance,
So many trophies in triumphed France,
And first her golden lillies bare; who o're
Pyrennes mountains to that western shore,
Where Tagus tumbles through his yellow sand
Into the ocean; stretch'd his conquering hand.

From the lines quoted, the reader will be able to judge what sort of versifier our author was, and from this beginning he has no great reason to expect an entertaining poem, especially as it is of the historical kind; and he who begins a poem thus insipidly, can never expect his readers to accompany him to the third page. May likewise translated Lucan's Pharsalia, which poem he continued down to the death of Julius Caesar, both in Latin and English verse.

Dr. Fuller says, that some disgust was given to him at court, which alienated his affections from it, and determined him, in the civil wars to adhere to the Parliament.

Mr. Philips in his Theatrum Poetarum, observes, that he stood candidate with Sir William Davenant for the Laurel, and his ambition being frustrated, he conceived the most violent aversion to the King and Queen. Sir William Davenant, besides the acknowledged superiority of his abilities, had ever distinguished himself for loyalty, and was patronized and favoured by men of power, especially the Marquis of Newcastle: a circumstance which we find not to have happened to May: it is true, they were both the friends of the amiable Endymion Porter, esq; but we are not informed whether that gentleman interested himself on either side.

In the year 1647, was published in London in folio, The History of the Parliament of England, which began November 3, 1640, with a Short and Necessary View of some precedent Years, written by Thomas May, Esq; Secretary to the Parliament, and published by their authority. In 1650 he published in 8vo. A Breviary of the History of the Parliament of England. Besides these works, Mr. Philips tells us, he wrote a History of Henry IV. in English verse, the Comedy of the Old Wives Tale, and the History of Orlando Furioso; but the latter, Mr. Langbaine, who is a higher authority than Philips, assures us was written before May was able to hold a pen, much less to write a play, being printed in 4to. London 1594. Mr. Winstanley says, that in his history, he shews all the spleen of a mal-content, and had he been preferred to the Bays, as he happened to be disappointed, he would have embraced the Royal interest with as much zeal, as he did the republican: for a man who espouses a cause from spite only, can be depended upon by no party, because he acts not upon any principles of honour or conviction.

Our author died suddenly in the year 1652, and was interred near the tomb of Camden, on the West side of the North isle of Westminster Abbey, but his body, with several others, was dug up after the restoration, and buried in a pit in St. Margaret's church year. Mr. May's plays are [list omitted].