Lucy and Lucretius

A puritan translation of an Epicurean masterpiece fell victim to the pieties of its time.

Lucy Hutchinson, engraving by Samuel Freeman, 19th century. Alamy.

Sometime in the 1650s Lucy Hutchinson began her verse translation of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, ‘On the Nature of the Universe’. Written in the first century bc, and rediscovered in 1417 by the Italian humanist Poggio Baracciolini, Lucretius’ masterpiece was a sensual, worldly and witty espousal of Epicurean philosophy. Inspired by the Greek thinker Epicurus, Lucretius emphasised the mortality of the soul, the futility of divine worship and, as his fourth chapter makes explicit, a positive take on sexuality. The universe, he argued, was little more than a whirl of atoms, best enjoyed in the moment.

Which makes one wonder what attracted Hutchinson to her project. She was a convinced puritan; her husband John, whose biography she wrote, fought on the Parliamentarian side in the Civil Wars, was a signatory of Charles I’s death warrant and would die in prison in 1664 as an opponent of the restored Charles II. Both Hutchinsons were fierce republicans and felt betrayed when Cromwell established the quasi-monarchical Protectorate: Lucy wrote a rigorous refutation of Edmund Waller’s A Panegyrick of my Lord Protector

She may have been drawn to the language of Lucretius, rather than his ‘atheistic’ philosophy, as she was a gifted Latinist who, as a child, ‘outstript my brothers who were at schoole’. And she later claimed that her interest was merely a ‘youthful curiositie’ in ‘this dog’. John Evelyn, the Royalist diarist and a more likely candidate for the task, had also begun his own translation just before Lucy, though he, too, was reluctant to publish in ‘distracted times’. 

By the time Thomas Creek produced his version in 1675, the world was no longer one of convention and piety. A simplistic interpretation of Epicureanism as the ‘endless pursuit of debauched pleasure’ had become all the rage in the lighter air of Restoration England, while scholars of Lucretius, such as Newton and Boyle, were drawn to his atomic theories. The brilliant work of the female classicist who had felt, like Evelyn, the need to self-censor would not see light until 1806.