Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Edmund K. Chambers
Thomas May (1594/51650)
[He was the son of Sir Thomas May of Mayfield, Sussex, and was born in 1594/5. A Fellow-commoner of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, a student at Grays Inn, and a courtier, he occupied his leisure in penning tragedies, comedies, descriptive poems, and translations from Virgil and Lucan. During the Civil Wars he was employed as secretary and historiographer to the Long Parliament. In this capacity he published in 1647 his History of the Parliament of England, which began 3rd Nov. 1640. This work however only extends to the battle of Newbury in 1643. In a Breviary of the same history, published in 1650, he carries the story some years further. Mays History was reprinted by Baron Maseres in 1812, and by the Clarendon Press in 1854; his Breviary is included in Maseres Select Tracts relating to the Civil Wars (1815). His comedies are, The Heir and The Old Couple; his tragedies, Cleopatra, Agrippina, and Antigone. To these Mr. Fleay would add the anonymous play of Nero, and if this be really Mays it is his masterpiece. There exists a rare book entitled An Epitome of the English History by Thomas May, Esq., a late Member of Parliament, 3rd ed. 1690; but as this is written in an anti-Cromwellian vein, and as the events narrated go down to 1660, it can hardly be the work of our author, who died in 1650.]
MAY is a man of letters playing the historian. He flaunts you his Latin at every turn, decking his narrative with quotations from Claudian, Petronius, Lucan, and stopping to translate them with superfluous nicety. He conceives of history rather as an art than a science; his object is to instruct ignorance, not to assist investigation; he will insert a document here and there, but for the most part you must take his word for his authorities. And, as is the wont of literary men, it is the personal note that attracts him most, not as with the modern school, analysis of hidden cause and obvious effect; so that the best part of his book is to be found in the touches of characterisation, in the sketches of Pym, of Strafford. As a describer of battles he is hardly vigorous or picturesque enough. Indeed to style in writing he never attains. He has not the gift of the paragraph; page after page is a string of disconnected notes. And his diction is so far Latinised as to become bald, without catching the felicities which Latinisms sometimes convey. A recent essayist writes that to possess that half of the language within which Latin heredities lurk and Romanesque allusions are at play, is to possess the state and security of a dead tongue without the death. And this is true for the geniuses, for Shakespeare with his extravagant and erring spirit, for Sir Thomas Browne and a few others, but for the rest, for such as May, it is only a pitfall, a short cut to tediousness and the easy commonplace. Against this it must be set that May is not pretentious, that his judgment is sober, and his temper just. Such praises one may bestow on the journeymen of literature.