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  • Lucy Hutchinson Writing Matter
  • Jonathan Goldberg

Il y a toujours d'hommes superposés en un homme, et le plus visible est le moins vrai.

—Régis Debray, Éloges

Although published only in 1996, Lucy Hutchinson's translation of Lucretius was in all likelihood the first in English, probably completed some time in the late 1640s or 1650s.1 Explaining why Hutchinson translated De rerum natura has proved puzzling, to say the least. In the dedicatory letter that accompanied the manuscript of her translation that she addressed to Arthur Annesley, first Earl of Anglesey—"given me June.11.1675 by the worthye author Mrs Lucie Hutchinson," he notes (Q, 17)—Hutchinson scathingly repudiates Lucretius, stating as her motive for the translation a "youthfull curiositie, to understand things I heard so much discourse of at second hand, but without the least inclination to propagate any of the wicked pernitious doctrines in it" (Q, 23). Testifying to the neo-epicureanism that Richard Kroll, for one, has found central to mid-seventeenth-century intellectual life, the letter proceeds to declare that there is nothing of value in De rerum natura—"the whole worke being one fault" (Q, 24); she labels Lucretius a lunatic (as had St. Jerome, in the earliest biographical remarks) and his work impious, a demonstration of how "carnall reason" leads to atheism (Q, 26).2 As Reid Barbour summarizes the situation succinctly in the first of his two essays on her translation, "[N]o two writers could seem more at odds than the puritan Lucy Hutchinson and the pagan Lucretius."3 This reiterates the message of Hutchinson's letter.

Why, then, did she do it? Barbour himself opines that nothing less than a total revaluation of our understanding of puritanism might be necessary to provide an answer to this question, and he offers various ways of beginning this task by noting signs of Hutchinson's own ambivalence even in 1675; the manuscript, for example, has been copied by a professional scribe (at least for the first five books), [End Page 275] prepared for the very presentation she repudiates; and although Hutchinson devalues Lucretius, Barbour opines, she may also be expressing her alienation from the "trivialization of paganism" in Restoration culture rather than completely devaluing the text. Barbour thinks that even if Hutchinson herself had no use for Lucretius by 1675, she nonetheless believed that her reader "might still gain something from Lucretius."4 Although Barbour does not say what that something might have been, for Hutchinson herself, at the time she actually was translating Lucretius during the civil war and its aftermath, Barbour imagines that Lucretius's insistent demeaning of war might have been consolatory, especially after the Hutchinsons had retired to their estate in disillusionment with Cromwell's rule; he further suggests that knowledge of the inclusion of women in the epicurean milieu might have appealed to an aspiring woman writer and intellectual; moreover, although Hutchinson finally pronounces Lucretian atomism and Christian belief utterly antithetical, Barbour notes that Lucretius had been Christianized by such figures as Pierre Gassendi. Hence, in the 1640s–1650s it is possible that Hutchinson did not assume the antithesis she would later declare. Indeed, even then, Barbour opines, Hutchinson might have made common cause with Lucretius to the extent that his poem is not directed against religious belief but against superstition. Indeed, in On Theology, a translation of part of a treatise by John Owen that she probably undertook late in her life, Hutchinson cites her own translation of Lucretius for a set of lines which characteristically undercut supernatural explanations of natural phenomena:

                  And thus If Neptune, Ceres, Bacchus, are by us Rather usurpt, then the true name of things T'expresse the sea, the corne, all liquid springs, In this sence wee shall grant the earth to be The mother of Gods, but not so really.5

Indeed these lines also posit an insuperable difference between the gods and nature, a point not entirely unlike that argued by Owen.

In his two essays (whose arguments I have conflated here), Barbour arrives at opposing conclusions about the question of why Hutchinson translated the poem. In the earlier essay, Hutchinson's repudiation of Lucretius is the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 275-301
Launched on MUSE
2006-03-20
Open Access
No
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