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Two 17th century translations of Lucretius
dumping my thoughts about how Creech & Rochester might compare
By the time John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) was composing verse, Lucretius was a well-established preoccupation of England’s educated milieu. John Evelyn and Lucy Hutchinson began the project of bringing Lucretius into English in the 1650s; it was finally completed by Thomas Creech, who produced the first full English translation of De Rerum Natura in 1682. A decade before Creech, Rochester was translating passages from DRN and sharing them with his coterie, a popular activity in the Carolean court.
At some point in the 1670s, Rochester selected the passage 1. 44-49 of DRN for translation. The original Latin reads:
Omnis enim per se divum natura necessest
immortali aevo summa cum pace fruatur
semota ab nostris rebus seiunctaque longe;
nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,
ipsa suis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,
nec bene promeritis capitur nec tangitur ira.
Rochester translated it with metrical strictness:
The Gods, by right of Nature, must possess
An Everlasting Age, of Perfect Peace:
Far off remov’d from us, and our Affairs:
Neither approach’d by Dangers, or by Cares:
Rich in themselves, to whom we cannot add:
Not Pleased by Good Deeds; nor provok’d by Bad.
For Lucretius, divine entities take no interest in acting as moral arbiters over their created subjects. They are remote because they are wholly fulfilled without enjoying any relation to mankind; they are both untroubled and untroubling. That Rochester chose to translate this passage (one of two brief excerpts, the other being the very opening lines of Book I) indicates his interest in the notion of God as an extreme iteration of the deus absconditus: a necessary Creator, but not a judge from whom moral imperatives flow. The passage’s anthropological implications chime nicely with Rochester’s renowned libertinism: if no system of punishment according to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is imposed by the divine, then earthly subjects might assume an equal serenity (or a sense of ambivalent detachment or reckless abandon or nihilistic melancholy &c.) regarding their actions.
Writing in the 1680s, Thomas Creech declared in the preface to the first edition of his full translation that his purpose was to fully expose the follies of Epicureanism:
‘For I have heard that the best Method to overthrow the Epicurean Hypothesis (I mean as it stands opposite to Religion) is to expose a full system of it to publick view: For Atheism usually enters at the Will, and That debauch’t makes the Understanding as blind as it self: and alltogether unable to look abroad into the World, and sedulously examine the beautiful order, and curious disposition of things.’
His 1682 translation of the above passage reads:
For whatsoever's Divine must live in Peace,
In undisturb'd and everlasting Ease:
Not care for Us, from fears and dangers free,
Sufficient to its own Felicity:
Nought here below, Nought in our Power it needs;
Ne're smiles at good, ne're frowns at wicked Deeds.
A direct comparison of the translations illuminates Rochester’s more ready departure from the Christian sensibility which shines through in Creech’s translation. In Creech’s hypermetrical line, the ambiguity of ‘whatsoever’s Divine’ emphasises the inaccessibility of knowledge regarding the nature of God for the pre-Christian Lucretius. The assertions in the proceeding lines about Divinity’s remote and careless nature seem somewhat paradoxical in result: indeed, Creech’s professed intention was to illuminate the fallaciousness of Lucretian ‘Atheism’ to a discerning reading public. Creech stresses that the translation ‘is the reason to expose a full system of this Philosophy, a way to ruine it, for these Notions, are rude and by themselves, may pass upon the Vulgar, but when their Connexion is perceived, and what irrational Principles they depend; who that hath half an Ey will not loath the sight?’. Rochester, meanwhile, opts for the word ‘Gods’, giving a more concretely personified form to that which is divine, while stressing the pagan flavour of the passage.
In the third line of Creech’s version, he compounds the mental serenity of the undisturbed Divine who do ‘not care for us’. Rochester’s Gods are simply ‘far off remov’d’, at a palpable physical distance from mankind. Rochester emphasises this relational distance between the ‘Gods’ and man: in the fifth line, he again stresses this relation (or lack thereof) with the clause ‘to whom we cannot add’. This depiction of a frustrated attempt to reach to the Gods – whether it is to add to their felicity or ‘provoke’ their ire with bad deeds – is less explicit in Creech, whose language in the sixth line does not imply a deliberate ‘provocation’ on the part of man.
Of the serenity and remoteness of the Divine, Creech argues that the lack of divine moral arbitration is a singularly absurd notion which would allow villains to go unpunished and heroes unrewarded. He repeatedly stresses his aversion to encouraging human carelessness (following the example of Lucretius’ divine entities) in his notes; by contrast, Rochester’s poetic response to Lucretius is clothed in many layers of apparent nihilistic surrender, bitter delectation, and impotent pessimism.
And now who can imagine such absurd Principles proper to lead any rational Enquirer to Serenity? Will it be a comfort to a good man to tell him as Aristophanes speaks, instead of Jupiter a Whirl-wind rules, when 'tis his greatest interest that there should be a merciful Disposer who takes notice of, and will reward his Piety. It will be an admirable security no doubt for his honesty, to assure his malicious enemies, that nothing is to be feared but their own discovery: And unless their Dreams prove treacherous, or their Minds rave, they are secure in their villanies, and may be wicked as often as they can fortunately be so; as often as Occasion invites, or Interest perswades. When Common-wealths may be preserved by breaking the very Band of Society, as Polybius calls Religion? when Treasons may be stifled by taking off from Subjects all obligations, but their own weakness, to Duty; and when a Democles can sit quietly under his hanging Sword; then the denial of Providence, then the belief of a World made, and upheld by chance, will be a remedy against all Cares, and a necessary cause of that desired serenity of Mind.
The preface to the first edition, later excised, stresses the necessity to believe in the world’s ‘beautiful order’ and ‘curious disposition’, according to the Christian worldview, which preserves the mystery which is obliterated by the microscopy of Lucretian atomism (or, indeed, the literal microscopic findings of the Royal Society). Creech disparages crude empiricism, elevating faith over a sense-oriented mechanistic system, in his 1682 commendatory verse to Dryden’s Religio Laici:
But she [Faith] rejects their Pretense,
And whilst those groveling things depend on Sense;
She mounts on certain wings and flys on high,
And looks upon a dazzling Mystery,
With fixt, and steddy, and an Eagle’s Eye.
Here, Faith rejects the Roman consistory’s ‘Pretense’; Creech aligns the trappings of the Romish religion with base ‘sense’. While clerical ‘pretense’ is comparable to Rochester’s ‘formal band and beard’ in the Satyr Against Reason and Mankind, Creech’s anti-Roman polemic here stands in direct opposition to Rochester’s sceptical empiricist speaker. Rochester’s speaker, mocking those who believe the senses to be base but ‘contrive/ a sixth, to contradict the other five’, would decry the ‘dazzling Mystery’ invoked by Creech to be a mere ignis fatuus. Rochester’s caricature of a cleric defends Reason with the same language of incandescence and soaring flight: ‘Reason, by whose aspiring Influence/ We take a flight beyond Material sense;/ Dive into Mysteries, then soaring pierce/ The flaming limits of the Universe’ (66–69).
Likewise, in the biting satirical poem composed in triplets, Of Nothing, Rochester’s speaker derides the trope of the ‘blinding’ or dazzling inaccessibility of Christian mysteries of faith:
Though mysteries are barred from laic eyes,
And the divine alone with warrant pries
Into thy bosom, where truth in private lies (24-26)
‘The divine’ refers to diviners, who claim a special access to the impenetrable religious mysteries whilst the ‘laic eyes’ remain in the shade; the Christian ‘mysteries’ are exclusively accessible to those who maintain the pretence of knowledge, the ‘blind philosophies’ (32).
Rochester’s other surviving translation of the opening passage from book I of DRN is entirely different in tone. In an exercise which is closer to a creative imitation than a faithful translation, he doubles the number of lines from the original:
Greate Mother of Eneas and of Love
Delight of Mankinde, and the powers above,
Who all beneathe those sprinkle’d dropps of light
Which slide upon the face of gloomy night,
Whither vast regions of that liquid world
Where groves of shipps on watry hill’s are hurl’d
Or fruitfull earth, do’st bless, sinc ‘tis by thee
That all things live, which the bright sunn do’es see
Venus blesses and begets all Creation; the language of flowing and morphing liquid presents her as a kind of divine source from which all things emanate. The passage as a whole is a beautiful laudation of Venus, whose proximity to the earthly realm sustains its fruitfulness and perpetual motion. The waves are ‘hills’; light is made of ‘sprinkle’d dropps’; the Sun bears witness to the fruits of Venus’ creation.
Rochester’s classical translations, while few in number, encompass a remarkable emotional range spanning ambivalent agnosticism, vivid pagan delight, and Stoic gloom. Rochester also translated a passage from Seneca’s Troades:
After Death nothing is, and nothing Death,
The utmost limit of a Gasp of Breath.
Let the ambitious Zealot lay aside
His hopes of Heaven; whose Faith is but his Pride.
Let slavish Souls lay by their Fear,
Nor be concern’d which way, nor where,
After this Life they shall be hurl’d;
Dead we become the Lumber of the World:
And to that Mass of Matter shall be swept,
Where things destroy’d, with things unborn are kept.
Devouring Time swallows us whole;
Impartial Death confounds Body and Soul.
For Hell and the foul Fiend that rules
God’s everlasting fiery Jayls,
(Devis’d by Rogues, dreaded by Fools)
With his grim grisly Dog that keeps the Door,
Are senseless Stories, idle Tales,
Dreams, Whimsies, and no more. (1–18)
Rochester invokes Seneca’s ‘Whimsies’ which hold believers in thrall in the Satyr: ‘Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain/ Mountains of whimseys, heaped in his own brain’ (16-17). This passage insists on Life’s perennial tending towards ‘Impartial Death’. The exhortation of the passage is that readers overcome their own passions, especially fear, and forsake their erroneous belief in the afterlife; instead, they should match the ‘impartiality’ of Death itself. The Christian fear of God is naturally implicated. Rather than emanating from the deity of Love herself and existing ‘fruitfully’, matter, ‘the lumber of the world’, is begotten of the dead in an eternal cycle where Death is the cornerstone of existence.
The futility of action which is not subject to divine judgement or the strictures of objective morality is a theme which pervades Rochester’s satire. In the Satyr Against Reason and Mankind, the sceptical speaker espouses a semi-Epicurean view which champions reason which ‘helps to enjoy’ over asceticism:
Our sphere of action is life's happiness,
And he that thinks beyond, thinks like an ass.
Thus, whilst against false reasoning I inveigh,
I own right reason, which I would obey:
That reason which distinguishes by sense
And gives us rules of good and ill from thence,
That bounds desires, with a reforming will
To keep 'em more in vigour, not to kill.
Your reason hinders, mine helps to enjoy,
Renewing appetites yours would destroy. (96-105)
‘Right reason’ is that which is illuminated by sensory experience; in the Hobbesian mechanistic scheme, that is the motion of external objects as perceived by the human body. The cynical speaker mocks the notion that mankind is so much more rational than animals who do not contrive a sixth ‘sense’ to try to overcome the brute nature of the other five. The speaker goes on to suggest that animal behaviour based on the sensory faculties is more ‘naturally’ human than the exercise of speculative reason. Rochester echoes the opening paradox of the Satyr in a letter to Savile: ‘most human Affairs are carried on at the same nonsensical rate, which makes me (who am grown Superstitious) think it a Fault to laugh at the Monkey we have here, when I compare his Condition with Mankind’.
In his shorter poems, too, Rochester voices pessimism regarding the possibility for moral action. This pessimism seems to respond to the simultaneous sovereignty and frailty of the senses. In ‘The Fall’ (composed c. September 1680), Rochester’s speaker ruminates on the exhaustive and unfulfilling nature of post-lapsarian pleasure:
How blest was the Created State
Of Man and Woman, e're they fell,
Compar'd to our unhappy ffate!
We need not fear another Hell:
Naked beneath cool Shades they lay,
Enjoyment waited on desire;
Each member did their wills obey:
Nor could a wish set pleasure higher.
But we, poor Slaves to hope and fear,
Are never of our Joys secure:
They lessen still, as they draw near;
And none but dull delights endure.
Then, Cloris, while I duty pay,
The nobler Tribute of a heart;
Be not you so severe, to say
You Love me for a frailer part.
Rochester’s treatment of prelapsarian happiness alludes to Augustine’s definition of chaste love in Book XIV of The City of God: ‘Nevertheless, that is no reason why it should seem incredible that the will, which is now obeyed by so many members, might also have been obeyed in the absence of this lust by that one part as well'. Rochester’s living hell, the fallen man’s ‘unhappy fate’, is one of enslavement to the passions: ‘hope and fear’ are in equal measure irrational and enslaving. The penultimate stanza makes reference to fleeting pleasures, the pursuit of which is more stimulating than the achievement. This stanza recalls the satirist’s railing against mankind’s enslavement to fear in the Satyr:
For hunger or for love they fight and tear,
Whilst wretched man is still in arms for fear.
For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid,
From fear, to fear successively betrayed;
Base fear, the source whence his best passions came:
His boasted honor, and his dear-bought fame;
The lust of power, to which he’s such a slave (139-145)
Rochester implies that human fear, necessary for an observance of the ‘immutable and eternall’ laws of nature, has moved beyond Hobbes’s ‘awe’ to a state of paralysis and enslavement. In this sense, the kingdom of animals is ‘as wise at least, and better far than he’, for animals lack the cognitive fear which holds mankind in fetters.
In ‘Against Constancy’, Rochester’s speaker surrenders to his fate – to be ‘changed to worms’ – and decries the futility of curtailing the passions:
Tell me no more of constancy,
The frivolous pretense
Of cold age, narrow jealousy,
Disease, and want of sense.
Though the speaker is sure of himself, the rather depressing effect of the final surrender to death reveals an underlying pessimism which is so constant across Rochester’s oeuvre. ‘Of Nothing’ and Rochester’s translation from Seneca’s Troades each possess this sureness of pessimism with the final assertion that ‘After Death, nothing is, and nothing Death’.
The profound sense of being lost and sad which pervades Rochester’s verse - verse which is so fraught with vacillation between delight and disgust in the sensory libertine creed which wed itself so conveniently to a mechanistic philosophy - seems to obey Seneca’s exhortation.