Thomas May

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 21:487-90.

THOMAS MAY, esq. an English poet and historian, was descended of an ancient, but somewhat declining family, in Sussex; and born at Mayfield in that county, as it is supposed, in 1594. His father purchased Mayfield in 1597, and was knighted at Whitehall, July 3, 1603. His son Thomas was instructed in classical literature in the neighbourhood, and Sept. 11, 1609, entered a fellow-commoner of Sidney college, in Cambridge, where, in 1612, he took a bachelor of arts degree, but never proceeded farther in academical advancement. He removed afterwards to London, and was admitted a member of Gray's Inn, Aug. 6, 1615; but his genius leading him to pursue the belles-lettres, and especially the muses, he concerned himself very little with the law. In 1616 he succeeded to the estate of Mayfield, which he sold next year. He gained an acquaintance with several eminent courtiers and wits of those times, as sir Kenelm Digby, sir Richard Fanshaw, sir John Suckling, sir Ashton Cockaine, Thomas Carew, Endymion Porter, Ben Jonson, and others: and his reputation was such, that he obtained the countenance of Charles I. and his royal consort; at whose particular recommendation and desire he undertook and published several of his poetical works. In particular, while he resided at court, he wrote the five following plays: 1. "The Heir, a comedy, acted in 1620," and printed in 1633. 2. "Cleopatra, a tragedy," acted in 1626, printed in 1639. 3. "Antigone, the Theban princess, a tragedy," printed in 1631. 4. "Agrippina, empress of Rome, a tragedy," printed in 1639. 5. "The Old Couple, a comedy," 1651. The second and last of these are reprinted in Dodsley's Collection. Two other plays have been ascribed to May, namely, "The old Wives Tale," and "Orlando Furioso;" but Langbaine says he "never saw the first;" and for the latter he assures the reader, "it was printed long before Mr. May was born, at least before he was able to guide a pen."

Besides these plays, we have several translations of his from some Latin authors, and other original compositions also in verse. Among the former are, "Virgil's Georgics," with annotations, published in 1622; to which are subjoined, selected epigrams from Martial; but he acquired most reputation by his translation of "Lucan's Pharsalia," and his own continuation of that poem to the death of Julius Caesar, both in Latin and English. The translation of the Pharsalia was first printed in 1627, and the continuation of it in English in 1630. The Latin continuation of it was printed at Leyden in 1640, 12mo, under this title, "Supplementum Lucani, libri viii. Authore Thoma Maio, Anglo:" to which edition are prefixed Latin commendatory poems to him by Boxhornius, Nicholas Heinsius, sir Richard Fanshaw, and others. It is certainly much to this author's honour, that his Latin "Supplement" was reprinted several times after with some good editions of Lucan abroad; and, it is probable, that his character would not have stood so low with posterity as it does at present, if certain political deviations afterwards had not made him obnoxious to the party which at length prevailed. Dr. Johnson preferred the Latin poetry of May to that of Cowley and Milton; an opinion which Mr. Thomas Warton controverts. He was concerned also in the translation of two books written by the celebrated Scotch wit John Barclay, namely, his "Argenis," and "Icon animorum." Among his original compositions are, "The reign of king Henry II. written in seven books, by his majesty's command, a poem: to which is added, in prose, The description of Henry II. with a short survey of the changes of his reign; also, The single and comparative characters of Henry and Richard, his sons," 1633, 8vo. In 1635 he published, by the king's special command also, an historical poem in seven books, entitled "The victorious reign of Edward III." On these compositions some recent critics, especially Mr. Headley, have bestowed high praise; but we cannot think their merit very conspicuous, unless in detached parts.

Some of his works, we see, were written at the command of Charles I. and almost all of them were dedicated to his majesty, which seems to indicate rather a close connection between the king and the poet: yet May, on the breaking out of the civil wars, joined himself very heartily to the parliament. Fuller gives a reason for this when he says that "some disgust at court was given to, or taken by him, as some would have it, because his bays were not gilded richly enough, and his verses rewarded by king Charles according to expectation." Others, as Phillips and Winstanley, say more particularly, "that his desertion from the court was owing to his being disappointed of the place of queen's poet, to which sir William Davenant, his competitor, was preferred before him;" and Clarendon seems to have suggested this opinion. Whatever was the cause, it is certain that he threw himself under the protection, and into the service of the parliament; and recommended himself so effectually to them, as to be appointed their secretary and historiographer. Agreeably to the duties of this last office, he published, in 1647, "The History of the Parliament of England, which began Nov. 3, 1640; with a short and necessary view of some precedent years," folio. The first book of this history begins with short characters of queen Elizabeth and king James, passing through the former part of king Charles's reign, to 1641; and the last ends with a narrative of the first battle of Newbury, in 1643. He afterwards made an abstract of this history, and a continuation of it to the death of king Charles I. in Latin, in 1649; and then an English translation of it, entitled "A Breviary of the History of the Parliament of England," 1650, 8vo. Echard calls this history, "one of the genteelest and handsomest libels of those times." Granger is of opinion that there is more candour in this history than the royalists were willing to allow him, but less elegance than might have been expected from the pen of so polite and classical a scholar. Warburton's praise of this work is perhaps of more value. In a letter to Dr. Hurd he says, "May's History of the Parliament is a just composition, according to the rules of history. It is written with much judgment, penetration, manliness, and spirit. And with a candour that will greatly increase your esteem, when you understand that he wrote by order of his masters the parliament. It breaks off (much to the loss of the history of that time) just when their armies were new modelled by the self-denying ordinance."

A few months after the publication of "The Breviary," the 13th of Nov. 1650, May died, at the age of fifty-five years. He went well to rest over night, after a chearful bottle as usual, and died in his sleep before morning: upon which his death was imputed to his tying his night-cap too close under his cheeks and chin, which caused his suffocation; but the facetious Andrew Marvell has written a long poem of an hundred lines, to make him a martyr of Bacchus, and die by the force of good wine. He was interred near Camden, in Westminster-abbey, which caused Fuller to say that "if he were a biassed and partial writer, yet he lieth buried near a good and true historian indeed." Soon after the restoration, his body, with those of several others, was dug up, and buried its a pit in St. Margaret's church-yard; and his monument, which was erected by the appointment of parliament, was taken down and thrown aside.