Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/May, Thomas (1595-1650)
MAY, THOMAS (1595–1650), poet, eldest son of Sir Thomas May of Mayfield, Sussex, by the daughter of —— Rich of Horndon-on-the-Hill, Essex, born 1595, entered at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on 7 Sept. 1609 as fellow-commoner, and took the degree of B.A. in 1612 (Biographia Britannica, p. 3064; Wood, Athenæ Oxonienses, iii. 810; Berry, Sussex Pedigrees, pp. 36, 56). On 6 Aug. 1615 May was admitted to Gray's Inn (Foster, Gray's Inn Register, p. 137). His father having spent his fortune, and sold the family estate, May 'had only an annuity left him, not proportionable to a liberal education.' 'Since his fortune,' continues Clarendon, 'could not raise his mind, he brought his mind down to his fortune by a great modesty and humility in his nature, which was not affected, but very well became an imperfection in his speech, which was great mortification to him, and kept him from entering upon any discourse but in the company of his very friends. His parts of art and nature were very good' (Life of Edward, Earl of Clarendon, i. § 33, ed. 1857). Prevented by his defective utterance from practising the law, May devoted himself entirely to literature. He turned first to the stage, and produced a comedy entitled 'The Heir,' acted in 1620 by the company of the revels, printed two years later, and much commended in verses prefixed to it by Thomas Carew. This was followed by another comedy and three classical tragedies, none of which obtained much success. May then betook himself to translating the classics, and published in 1628 a translation of the 'Georgics' of Virgil, and in 1629 a version of some of Martial's 'Epigrams.' His translation of Lucan's 'Pharsalia,' published in 1627, passed through three editions in eight years. May followed it up by composing a continuation of Lucan (1630), both in Latin and English verse, which carried the story down to the death of Cæsar. The translation was unstintingly praised by Ben Jonson, and May was permitted to dedicate his continuation to Charles I. An epigram addressed to May compares his fortunes with those of Lucan:
Thou son of Mercury whose fluent tongue
Made Lucan finish his Pharsalian song,
Thy fame is equal, better is thy fate,
Thou hast got Charles his love, he Nero's hate.
Wit's Recreations, p. 12, 1640.
By the king's command May wrote two narrative poems on the reign of Henry II (1633) and Edward III (1635). Charles gave him other proofs of his favour. In January 1634, at a masque performed by the gentlemen of the Inns of Court before the king, May came into collision with the lord chamberlain, the Earl of Pembroke. Pembroke, who did not know him, broke his staff across his shoulders, but the king called May 'his poet,' and rebuked Pembroke. Next morning Pembroke sent for May, excused himself for his violence, and presented the poet with 50l. (Strafford Papers, i. 207; Secret History of James I, 1811, i. 222). The death of Ben Jonson in August 1637 left vacant the posts of poet-laureate and chronologer to the city of London. Suckling mentions 'Lucan's translator' among the candidates for the first, and the Earls of Dorset and Pembroke and the king himself wrote to the lord mayor recommending May for the second (Suckling, Works, ed. Hazlitt, i. 7; Index to Remembrancia, pp. 305–6). But D'Avenant was appointed poet-laureate, and the post of chronologer seems to have remained vacant until the appointment of Francis Quarles in February 1639.
Contemporaries attributed to this disappointment May's subsequent adoption of the parliamentary cause during the civil wars. 'Though he had received much countenance and a considerable donative from the king,' says Clarendon, 'upon his majesty's refusing him a small pension, which he had designed and promised to another very ingenious person, whose qualities he thought inferior to his own, he fell from his duty' (Life, i. § 32). Wood (Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 810), Winstanley (Lives of the most famous English Poets, 1687, p. 164), and Edward Phillips (Theatrum Poetarum, 1675, ii. 179) all make the same statement. In a poetical tract, published in 1645, entitled 'The Great Assizes holden in Parnassus by Apollo,' 'Mercurius Aulicus' is represented as bringing the charge of ingratitude against May, a charge which Apollo dismisses as arising from mere malice.
During the war May lived in the parliament's quarters. He was probably the Thomas May of Allhallows the Great, assessed at 40l. by the committee for advance of money on 2 Oct. 1644 (Calendar, p. 473). On 19 Jan. 1645–6 May and Sadler were appointed by the House of Commons to draw up a declaration 'for vindicating to the world the honour of the parliament, in this great cause of religion and liberty undertaken and maintained by the parliament.' They are styled 'secretaries for the parliament,' promised a salary of 200l. a year jointly, and granted 100l. at once as a reward for past services (Commons' Journals, iv. 410). In 1647 May published his 'History of the Long Parliament' (licensed 7 May 1647; cf. Commons' Journals, v. 175). This was followed by the 'Breviary of the History of the Parliament of England,' published in 1650, first in Latin and then in English.
May has been wrongly identified with a certain Thomas May, servant to Mr. John Clement, who was arrested in February 1649 for 'raising false rumours concerning the parliament and general,' and it is hence inferred by Guizot that the poet was towards the end of his life opposed to Cromwell and the independent party (Whitelocke, Memorials, 1853, iii. 146; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1649–50 pp. 495, 525, 1650 p. 75; Guizot, Portraits Politiques des Hommes de différents partis, p. 114). Up to the time of his death May was still actively employed in the service of the parliament. On 2 July 1650 the council of state ordered that the 'declaration of the parliament of England upon the marching of their army to Scotland be sent to Thomas May to be translated into Latin, that it may be sent into foreign parts' (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1650, p. 228). Personally May was most closely connected with the free-thinking and free-living section of the republican party. 'He became,' says Wood, 'a debauchee ad omnia, entertained ill principles as to religion, spoke often very slightly of the holy Trinity, and kept beastly and atheistical company, of whom Thomas Chaloner the regicide was one' (Athenæ, iii. 810; cf. Original Letters and Papers of State addressed to Oliver Cromwell, ed. by John Nickolls, 1743, p. 43).
May died on 13 Nov. 1650. According to Wood, 'going well to bed, he was therein found next morning dead, occasioned, as some say, by tying his nightcap too close under his fat chin and cheeks, which choked him when he turned on the other side.' Marvell's poem represents him as dying after too jovial an evening:
As one put drunk into the packet-boat,
Tom May was hurried hence and did not know't.
Marvell, Poems, ed. 1681, p. 35.
The council of state ordered May's friends, Chaloner and Henry Marten [q. v.], to arrange for his interment in Westminster Abbey, and voted 100l. for the purpose (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1650, p. 432). He was buried ‘on the west side of the large south aisle or transept,’ and a large monument of white marble erected over his grave, with an epitaph by Marchmont Nedham (Wood, iii. 811). At the Restoration his body was taken up, by warrant dated 9 Sept. 1660, and buried in a pit in the yard of St. Margaret's Church, Westminster. His monument was taken down and its place filled in 1670 by that of Dr. Thomas Triplet (ib.; Chester, Westminster Abbey Registers, p. 521). A portrait of May, with a laurel-wreath over his head, is prefixed to his ‘Breviary of the History of the Parliament of England,’ 1655.
May's writings fall under the four heads of plays, poems, translations, and prose works. I. Plays.—1. ‘The Heir: a Comedy acted by the Company of the Revels, 1620,’ 4to, 1622. Reprinted in Dodsley's ‘Old Plays,’ ed. Hazlitt, vol. xi. This is probably the best of May's dramas (Ward, Dramatic Literature, ii. 348). 2. ‘The Tragedy of Antigone, the Theban Princess,’ 8vo, 1631. Dedicated to Endymion Porter, with a preface on the nature of tragedy and comedy. 3. ‘The Tragedy of Julia Agrippina, Empress of Rome,’ 12mo, 1639 and 1654. 4. ‘The Tragedy of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt,’ 12mo, 1639 and 1654. 5. ‘The Old Couple,’ 4to, 1658 (Dodsley, vol. xii.). 6. ‘Julius Cæsar, a Latin Play.’ ‘The manuscript is in the possession of Mr. Stephen Jones’ (Biog. Dram. 1812). Mr. Fleay gives reasons for supposing that the tragedy of ‘Nero’ (1624) was by May, and holds that ‘The Old Couple’ was the earliest of May's plays (Biog. Chron. of the English Drama, ii. 83, 84).
II. Poems.—1. ‘The Reign of King Henry the Second. Written in seven books. By his Majesty's Command,’ 8vo, 1633. 2. ‘The Victorious Reign of King Edward the Third.’ Written in seven books. By his Majesty's Command,’ 8vo, 1635. 3. Miscellaneous verse. A manuscript poem, entitled ‘Neptune to King Charles,’ is among the ‘Domestic State Papers’ (Calendar, 1627–8, p. 238). Verses by May are prefixed to ‘The Tournament of Tottenham,’ 4to, 1631, to Alleyn's ‘Battles of Crescy and Poitiers,’ 1633, and to James Shirley's ‘Poems,’ 8vo, 1646. He also contributed an elegy to ‘Jonsonus Virbius,’ 4to, 1638.
III. Translations.—1. ‘Lucan's Pharsalia, or the Civil Wars of Rome between Pompey the Great and Julius Cæsar,’ 8vo, 1627, 1631, 1635. Verses by Ben Jonson are prefixed, which are also printed in ‘Underwoods,’ p. xxi. 2. ‘Virgil's Georgics, with Annotations on each Book,’ 16mo, 1628. 3. ‘Selected Epigrams of Martial,’ 16mo, 1629. 4. ‘John Barclay his Argenis, translated out of Latin into English, the Prose upon his Majesty's Command by Sir Robert le Grys, knight, and the verse by Thomas May, esq.,’ 1629, 4to (see Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1627–8, pp. 585, 589). 5. ‘The Mirror of Minds, or Barclay's Icon Animorum, englished by T. M.,’ 12mo, 1631. Dedicated to Lord-treasurer Weston. 6. May's English and Latin continuations of Lucan belong in part to both these classes. ‘A Continuation of Lucan's Historicall Poem till the death of Julius Cæsar, by T. M.,’ 8vo, 1630, 1633, 1657. ‘His supplement to Lucan,’ says Clarendon, ‘being entirely his own, for the learning, the wit, and the language, may be well looked upon as one of the best dramatic poems in the language’ (Life, i. 32, ed. 1857). 7. ‘Supplementum Lucani, lib. vii.,’ Leyden, 1640, 8vo. This is a translation of the foregoing, ‘written,’ says Wood, ‘in so lofty and happy Latin hexameter that he hath attained to much more reputation abroad than he hath lost at home.’
IV. Prose Works.—1. ‘A Discourse concerning the Success of former Parliaments,’ 4to, 1642. May's name is first attached to the second edition of this pamphlet, 1644. 2. ‘The Character of a Right Malignant,’ 4to, 1644. 3. ‘The Lord George Digby's Cabinet and Dr. Goff's Negotiations,’ 4to, 1646. This consists of the correspondence of Lord Digby, captured at Sherburn in October 1645. The ‘Observations’ prefixed to the letters were the joint work of May and Thomas Sadler (Commons' Journals, iv. 410). 4. ‘The History of the Parliament of England which began 3 Nov. 1640, with a short and necessary view of some precedent years. Written by Thomas May, Esq., Secretary for the Parliament,’ fol. 1647. This was published in May 1647 (ib. v. 174). Reprinted by Baron Maseres, with a preface, 1812, 4to, and by the Clarendon press, 8vo, 1854. 5. ‘Historiæ Parliamenti Angliæ Breviarium, tribus partibus explicitum,’ 12mo, 1650. 6. ‘A Breviary of the History of the Parliament of England,’ 1650, 12mo; 2nd edit. 1655. This is a translation of the foregoing, and is reprinted by Maseres in ‘Select Tracts relating to the Civil Wars in England,’ 1815. 7. ‘The Changeable Covenant,’ 1650, 4to. 8. ‘The Life of a Satirical Puppy called Nim.’ By T. M., 8vo, 1657. This is probably attributed to May solely on the evidence of the initials. May's authorship of 2 and 7 is also doubtful.
As a prose writer May's reputation rests on his ‘History of the Long Parliament.’ It is written in a flowing and elegant style, abounding, like all May's writings, with quotations and parallels from Latin literature. Strafford is compared to Curio, Marie de Medicis to Agrippina. May bases his history on the newspapers and on the official manifestos of the two parties. He keeps himself studiously in the background, avoids, as far as possible, any expression of his own opinion, and is silent about his own reminiscences. He professes to relate facts without rhetoric or invective, to recall to the minds of his readers the judgments passed at the time on the facts he records, and to inform the world of the right nature, causes, and growth of the civil strife. Secret motives or hidden causes he makes no attempt to explain. ‘I cannot,’ he says, ‘search into men's thoughts, but only relate the actions which appeared.’ With the partisans of the parliament the book at once became popular. Mrs. Hutchinson, in her life of her husband, praises ‘Mr. May's history,’ as ‘impartially true, saving some little mistakes in his own judgment, and misinformations which some vain people gave of the state, and more indulgence to the king's guilt than can justly be allowed’ (Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. 1885, i. 136).
A century later Warburton recommended May's work to Hurd, as ‘written with much judgment, penetration, manliness, and spirit, and with a candour which will greatly increase your esteem when you understand that he wrote by the order of his masters the parliament.’ Chatham also advised his nephew to read May's ‘History’ as being ‘a much honester and more instructive book than Clarendon's.’ Maseres, who quotes these testimonies, eulogises May's impartiality (History of the Long Parliament, ed. 1854, pp. ix, x). But May deserves praise rather for the moderation of his language than for the independence of his views. A comparison of the ‘History of the Parliament’ with the ‘Breviary’ shows a remarkable difference both in his style and conclusions. In the ‘History’ he is the official apologist of the parliament and its original leaders. In the ‘Breviary’ he is the panegyrist of the army and the independent party. His contemporaries in general justly regarded him as neither impartial nor honest. ‘Most servile wit and mercenary pen’ is Marvell's scathing verdict. With obvious reference to May, the Duchess of Newcastle alludes to historians of the civil war, who ‘were such parasites, that after the king's party was overpowered, the government among the rebels changing from one faction to another, they never missed to exalt highly the merits of the chief commanders of the then prevailing side, comparing some of them to Moses, and some others to all the great and most famous heroes, both Greeks and Romans’ (Life of the Duke of Newcastle, ed. 1886, p. lix). Guizot, in the account of May, originally prefixed to his translation of the ‘History,’ criticises his historical works with great severity, speaks of his ‘adroit partiality,’ and accuses him of misrepresenting the facts by ‘omission, palliation, and dissimulation’ (Portraits Politiques des Hommes de différents Partis, ed. 1874, p. 123).
[Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses; Biographia Britannica, vol. v.; the edition of the Hist. of the Long Parliament, edited by Maseres; and Guizot's Portraits Politiques; authorities cited in the article.]