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Thomas MAY (1595-1650)
17th Century Poet

This famous poet was the eldest son of Sir Thomas May of Mayfield, Sussex, by an unnamed daughter of Richard Horndon. He was born 1595, entered at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on 7th September 1609 as fellow-commoner and took the degree of B.A. in 1612. On 6th August 1615, May was admitted to Gray's Inn. 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’. Prevented by his defective utterance from practicing 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,' publislied 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 Caesar. The translation was unstintingly praised by Ben Jonson and May was permitted to dedicate his continuation to Charles l. All 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, 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 £50. 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.  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'. Wood, Winstanley and Edward Phillips 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 All Hallows the Great, assessed at £40 by the committee for advance of money on 2nd October 1644. On 19th January 1646, 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 £200 a year jointly, and granted £100 at once as a reward for past services. In 1647, May published his 'History of the Long Parliament'. 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. Up to the time of his death, May was still actively employed in the service or the Parliament. On 2nd 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'. 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'.

May died on 13th November 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 chill 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.

The Council of State ordered May's friends, Chaloner and Henry Marten, to arrange for his interment in Westminster Abbey and voted £100 for the purpose. He was buried ‘on the west side of the large south aisle or transept,' and a large monument of white marble erected ever his grave, with an epitaph by Marchmont Nedham. At the Re­storation, his body was taken up, by warrant dated 9th September 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. 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.


    © David Nash Ford 2001. All Rights Reserved.