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May, Thomas

MAY, THOMAS (1595-1650), English poet and historian, son of Sir Thomas May of Mayfield, Sussex, was born in 1595. He entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1609, and took his B.A. degree three years later. His father having lost his fortune and sold the family estate, Thomas May, who was hampered by an impediment in his speech, made literature his profession. In 1620 he produced The Heir, an ingeniously constructed comedy, and, probably about the same time, The Old Couple, which was not printed until 1658. His other dramatic works are classical tragedies on the subjects of Antigone, Cleopatra, and Agrippina. F. G. Fleay has suggested that the more famous anonymous tragedy of Nero (printed 1624, reprints in A. H. Bullen's Old English Plays and the Mermaid Series) should also be assigned to May. But his most important work in the department of pure literature was his translation (1627) into heroic couplets of the Pharsalia of Lucan. Its success led May to write a continuation of Lucan's narrative down td the death of Caesar. Charles I. became his patron, and commanded him to write metrical histories of Henry II. and Edward III., which were completed in 1635. When the earl of Pembroke, then lord chamberlain, broke his staff across May's shoulders at a masque, the king took him under his protection as " my poet," and Pembroke made him an apology accompanied with a gift of 50. These marks of the royal favour seem to have led May to expect the posts of poetlaureate and city chronologer when they fell vacant on the death of Ben Jonson in 1637, but he was disappointed, and he forsook the court and attached himself to the party of the Parliament. In 1646 he is styled one of the " secretaries " of the Parliament, and in 1647 he published his best known work, The History of the Long Parliament. In this official apology for the moderate or Presbyterian party, he professes to give an impartial statement of facts, unaccompanied by any expression of party o personal opinion. If he refrained from actual invective, he accomplished his purpose, according to Guizot, by " omission, palliation and dissimulation." Accusations of this kind were foreseen by May, who says in his preface that if he gives more information about the Parliament men than their opponents it is that he was more conversant with them and their affairs. In 1650 he followed this with another work written with a more definite bias, a Breviary of the History of the Parliament of England, in Latin and English, in which he defended the position of the Independents. He stopped short of the catastrophe of the king's execution, and it seems likely that his subservience to Cromwell was not quite voluntary. In February 1650 he was brought to London from Weymouth under a strong guard for having spread false reports of the Parliament and of Cromwell. He died on the 13th of November in the same year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, but after the Restoration his remains were exhumed and buried in a pit in the yard i St Margaret's, Westminster. May's change of side made him many bitter enemies, and he is the object of scathing condemnation from many of his contemporaries.

There is a long notice of May in the Biographia Britannica. See also W. J. Courthope, Hist, of Eng. Poetry, vol. 3; and Guizot, Etudes biographiques sur la revolution d'Angleterre (pp. 403-426, ed. 1851).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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