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

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