Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Milton, Lucy Hutchinson, and the Lucretian Sublime The Sublime Object

Lucretius’s De rerum natura is a neglected source for the emergence of the theory and practice of the sublime in the early modern period. This paper shows how two committed Puritans, the poets John Milton (1608–1674) and Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681), engaged with Lucretius. After examining Lucretius’s quest for sublimity in subject and style, the article considers the ways in which Milton and Hutchinson responded to his presentation of the gods, his cosmology, his treatment of the death of the soul, his politics, and the ways in which sublimity might be gendered.

One of the earliest responses to Milton’s Paradise Lost classed the poem as sublime. In the poem’s second edition in 1674, Andrew Marvell published a tribute which began by fearing the negative aspects of this quality: Milton is ‘blind, yet bold’, so bold indeed that he may ‘ruine’ the sacred truths, offering argumentation where faith might be more appropriate. The poet’s literal blindness, often taken by his royalist enemies as a punishment of his support for regicide, may also epitomise a blindness of understanding. Having raised these doubts, the poem proceeds to dispel them:

That Majesty which through thy Work doth Reign
Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane.

And things divine thou treats of in such state
As them preserves, and Thee inviolate.
At once delight and horrour on us seize,
Thou singst with so much gravity and ease;
And above humane flight dost soar aloft,
With Plume so strong, so equal, and so soft.
The Bird nam’d from that Paradise you sing
So never Flags, but alwaies keeps on Wing …

I too transported by the Mode offend,
And while I meant to Praise thee, must Commend.
Thy verse created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, Weight, and Measure, needs not Rhime.1

The poem ends with an echo of Wisdom 11:20: this epic is sublime in being a creation parallel to God’s creation of the universe. Marvell contrasts this sublime poetics with the recent attempt by the Poet Laureate, John Dryden, to ‘tag’ Paradise Lost by turning it into rhyming couplets for his opera The State of Innocence, transforming its imaginative visions into stage spectacle. When Dryden published The State of Innocence in 1677, he invoked the sublime himself in a preface which often cited Longinus, from Boileau’s translation of 1674.2 In the history of the concept of the sublime in England, Boileau’s version has traditionally been seen as the key turning-point in the emergence of a poetics and aesthetics of the grandly unrepresentable, an import from a French critical discourse.3 Paradise Lost can be assimilated to a ‘baroque’ style: an emphasis movement, tricks of perspective, uncertainties of closure – even if the poem’s Pandemonium may parody St Peter’s in Rome.4 For Peter Davidson, Milton is ‘one of the most baroque and most intensely Latinate poets of the seventeenth century’, though he finds Paradise Regained to be closer to his rather different paradigms for a ‘universal baroque’.5

Marvell’s poem, however, points to an engagement with a specifically English and politicised reception of Longinus. His language has a political coding: Milton’s note on the verse, which immediately followed Marvell’s tribute in the 1674 edition, proclaimed ‘ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Rimeing’. Milton’s blank verse periods break through the closed rhyming couplets which Dryden, the Poet Laureate, was trying to re-impose on his epic; Marvell’s poem ironically presents its own rhyme-scheme as the gradual submission to a bondage its opening parody of Miltonic syntax seems about to escape. The recovery of ancient liberty was a political as much as a literary project, the ideal of the English republic which Milton had served. And for Milton and his allies, this ideal was associated with Longinus’s sublime. The first English translation, in 1652, was by his fellow-republican John Hall. In celebrating Milton as the ‘Poet blind, yet bold’, Marvell was throwing back at royalists the claim that his blindness was a punishment for his part in the regicide. The opening lines of Marvell’s poem echo a letter in which he had praised Milton’s Defensio Secunda, his celebration of the English republic, for its sublimity. As I have argued elsewhere, Milton’s sublime epic involved a challenge to the emergent ‘Augustan’ poetics in which harmony of versification, developed by translators of Virgil such as Denham and Waller, became an image of monarchical stability; the anti-imperial Lucan was an important alternative model.6 This anti-courtly sublime would be developed in Whig poetry, although with a shift towards a more pathetic mode.7 To be somewhat anachronistic, they preferred the sublime to the beautiful. Virgil’s influence was countered by admiration for Lucan, who powerfully influenced Paradise Lost.

These different versions of the sublime, however, are not the only ones evoked in Marvell’s poem. As we read Paradise Lost, he claims,

At once delight and horrour on us seize,
Thou singst with so much gravity and ease;
And above humane flight dost soar aloft

The allusion here for seventeenth-century readers would have been unmistakable: it is to one of the most celebrated passages of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, the opening of the third book. The poet addresses Epicurus:

E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae,
te sequor, o Graiae gentis decus, inque tuis nunc
ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis …
nam simul ac ratio tua coepit vociferari
naturam rerum divina mente coortam
diffugiunt animi terrores, moenia mundi
discedunt. totum video per inane geri res.
apparet divum numen sedesque quietae,
quas neque concutiunt venti nec nubila nimbis
aspergunt neque nix acri concreta pruina                                  20
cana cadens violat semperque innubilus aether
integit et large diffuso lumine ridet:
omnia suppeditat porro natura neque ulla
res animi pacem delibat tempore in ullo.
at contra nusquam apparent Acherusia templa,
nec tellus obstat quin omnia dispiciantur,
sub pedibus quaecumque infra per inane geruntur.
his ibi me rebus quaedam divina voluptas
percipit atque horror, quod sic natura tua vi
tam manifesta patens ex omni parte retecta est.8                30
                                                                        (3.1-4, 13-30)

As translated by Lucy Hutchinson at around the time Milton was beginning Paradise Lost:

Thou, who first didst in that black mistie night
Disclose lifes good, advancing thy cleare light,
Thou glorious Greeke, thy nations chiefest grace,
I follow thee, thy footestepps only trace…
Which from noe supernaturall power derive
The being of things, but by cleare reason tell
What nature is, and the minds feares expell.
Thus are the worlds enclosures open layd,
And the vast space, where all things moove, displayd,
The habitations of celestiall powers,
Neither shaken with winds, nor wett with showers,
Which snows doe not infest, white frosts, nor haile,
Where noe darke clouds heavens constant splendor vaile,
Where light dilateth smiles on euery side,
Where all by their owne nature are supplide,
Where noe disturbance euer can molest
The sacred peace, with which the mind is blest.
And then againe hells kingdomes no where doe
Appeare, for earth doth not resist our veiw
Of that vast deepe, which underneath it lies.
What sweete delight and wonder did surprize
My thoughts, when thus I found nature disclosd,
And by thy skill to mortalls sight expos’d!9

This is one of the most remarkable moments in classical poetry. In a striking enjambment (3.16-17), the walls of the universe, moenia mundi / discedunt, disappear or open out, and the poet sees the movement of things throughout the void, inane. The poem opens into infinite space. First, the poet sees the gods, but these are not the conventional deities who reward and punish mortals but cosmic forces which neither created the universe nor affect its workings. And he challengingly asserts that what he does not see is the underworld, the feared site of punishment after death: with the insight of Epicurean natural philosophy, he knows that all matter is made up of atoms and void, and in his imagination he can follow the void right through the earth to the other side.10 His verb here, dispiciantur, is one of many reduplicating verbs where Lucretius insists that we can see beyond the surfaces of things to their invisible structures. Interestingly for the Miltonic connection, since the word invisibilis had not yet been coined, Lucretius consistently uses the word caecus, ‘blind’, for that which is invisible. The atomic structure of the universe is its deepest truth but one which human perception cannot register, and this is one source of the poem’s sublimity. The poet, following Epicurus, is bringing light out of the darkness, but this light reveals odd darknesses of vacuum under the superficial brightness of things.

The things he now sees are taking place underneath his feet, sub pedibus (3.27), a term which also draws attention to the feet of his poetic metre. Lucretius’s sublimity, like Milton’s, often involves dramatic enjambments, giving a sense of a force that breaks boundaries; at lines 29–30, the force of Epicurus’ intellectual boldness, tua vi (he has earlier declared that he is following his footsteps, pedum, 3.4). The effect of going beyond easy harmony is reinforced by ending the line with an emphatic monosyllable. Such line-endings were regarded as inelegant by later Roman poets, since the stress on the monosyllable left the previous syllable unstressed and caused an imbalance between stress and quantity at a point where convergence was expected. This effect of barely contained disharmony, however, is as much part of the Lucretian sublime as blank verse is of Milton’s. The poet is looking down, and in the Epicurean cosmos all movement is downward; but this is also an infinite cosmos, and beneath us are other worlds to which we are the heavens, so that the gaze downward is upward for others. Sublimis in Lucretius connotes both height and depth, but in his cosmos these concepts are relativised. Lucretius’s sub pedibus reminds us of his earlier declaration that he is following in Epicurus’ footsteps and also of the poem’s first invocation of Epicurus as treading superstition underfoot (1.78): a moment of vertiginous fear turns into triumph at the mind’s victory. The infinite vista does inspire fear, horror (3.29) and this is in part what would later be called horror vacui, the fear which would be a natural response to the idea that there is void beneath the most apparently solid and material aspects of our experience. But there is also a divine pleasure, divina voluptas (3.28) – a pleasure precisely in recognising that there is no divinity out there to fear, beyond the divinity that we can all achieve by setting our desires in a grander cosmic context.11

This sense of exhilaration at freeing oneself of the trappings of religious fear was caught by the Italian translator Alessandro Marchetti, whose version was completed in 1668: at this point he added the claim that here there is no Inferno with the inscription ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’:

Natura inoltre sommministra all’uomo
ciò che gli è d’uopo, e la sua pace interna
non turba in alcun tempo alcuna cosa;
né piú si mira ai danni nostri aperto
l’Inferno, e scritto di sua porta al sommo:
«Uscite di speranza, o voi ch’entrate».12

Lucretius emerges as a stronger poet than Dante. For Lucretius, the horror inspired by the infinite cosmos is to be strongly contrasted with fear of creating or punishing deities, animi terrores (3.16). Seventeenth-century verse translators were rather puzzled at what this non-religious horror might be: Lucy Hutchinson has ‘sweete delight and wonder’, while John Evelyn and Thomas Creech translate only voluptas and omit horror; Marvell, however, recognises the importance of the tension in Lucretius’s formulation. Later theorists were to locate in this passage a major inspiration for theories of the sublime as arousing a disturbing pleasure at the mind’s powers – Burke quoted the passage13 and Kant seems to echo it very closely:

The astonishment bordering on terror (Schreck), the horror and the awesome shudder (das Grausen und der heilige Schauer), which grips (ergreift) the spectator in viewing mountain ranges towering to the heavens, deep ravines and the raging torrents in them, deeply shadowed wastelands inducing melancholy reflection, etc., is, in view of the safety in which he knows himself to be, not actual fear, but only an attempt to involve ourselves in it by means of the imagination, in order to feel the power of that very faculty, to combine the movement of the mind thus aroused with its calmness…14

Though there is obviously a long distance from the De rerum natura to Kant’s third Critique, Lucretius does highlight the active mental processes involved in seeing through appearances. He acclaims Epicurus as rerum inventor (3.9), rendered by Hutchinson as ‘searcher out of things’ (3.10): a discoverer, not exactly a creator. But there are insinuations of something more like the latter meaning. Res in the De rerum natura is an extraordinarily polyvalent word, a ground-bass which constantly goes through different meanings: it occurs four times in the passage just quoted. It may seem to tie the poem down to a concrete particularity at odds both with beauty and with the grand generality of the sublime. Epicurus was himself suspicious of high-flown language, and Lucretius’s own register can be awkward and prosaic – ‘crabbed’ was a favourite seventeenth-century description. But Lucretius found ways of leaping from the prosaic to the sublime. His res means both ‘thing’ and ‘subject-matter’: the materia of the universe is Lucretius’s res. When at 3.15 we are told (in the version current today15 that Epicurus’ reason speaks of naturam rerum, divina mente coortam, the nature of things sprung forth from your divine mind, the coorta blurs with other words of origin such as exordia, a metaphor from weaving applied to poetic composition and the fabrication of atoms (3.31), to make Epicurus himself appear as creator of the world he describes. As indeed in some sense he is: if we open ourselves as he does to the grandeur of the cosmos we can transform the world of our everyday experience and the walls of illusion part. What we find in the act of dispicere (3.26) is that things themselves are not the solid objects we normally imagine but open up a mini-cosmos of particles and void whose existence we would not suspect without true philosophy:

primordia tantum
sunt infra nostros sensus tantoque minora
quam quae primum oculi coeptant non posse tueri[.]
(the first-beginnings are so far below our senses and so much smaller than the point at which our eyes begin not to be able to see)

Lucretius’s poetry matches the movement of Epicurus’ mind in crossing the threshold of the visible. In the illustration Thomas Creech designed for his translation, he tried to represent this ultimately unrepresentable phenomenon, with the engraver’s lines giving way to dots which can but hint at the underlying atoms (fig.1).

Title-page to Thomas Creech, T. Lucretius Carus, Of the Nature of Things drawn and engraved by Michael Burghers

Fig 1. Title-page to Thomas Creech, T. Lucretius Carus, Of the Nature of Things, second and third editions, Oxford and London 1682–3
drawn and engraved by Michael Burghers
reproduced from the edition by [John Digby], 2 vols., London 1714

Thus an apparently banal and simple basic matter can produce a sublime cosmos. In another encomium of Epicurus, Lucretius writes:

Quis potis est dignum pollenti pectore carmen
condere pro rerum maiestate hisque repertis? (5.1-2)
(Who has a powerful enough mind to build a poem
worthy of the majesty of things and these discoveries)

The Epicurean cosmos has a true majesty which calls for a majestic poem, one which, as Creech wrote in his translation, calls for ‘so sublime a wing’.16 Lucretius goes on to say that we must speak ut ipsa petit maiestas cognita rerum, ‘as the recognised majesty of things demands’ (5.7): a commonality emerges between the things themselves, Epicurus’ penetrating to their atomic essences, and Lucretius’s finding a language adequate to both. Marvell may allude to this passage when in his poem to Milton he praises ‘That Majesty which through thy Work doth Reign’ – a majesty conspicuously different from that of royalty, whose maiestas is recorded later in the book as trampled underfoot by the people (5.1137). Marvell was thus responding to Lucretian elements in the Miltonic sublime which for champions of Dryden, by contrast, revealed deficiencies. Nathaniel Lee contrasted Dryden’s The State of Innocence with Paradise Lost:

[Milton] roughly drew, on an old fashion’d ground,
A Chaos, for no perfect World was found,
Till through the heap, your mighty Genius shin’d;
His was the Golden Ore which you refin’d.17

For Marvell, by contrast, the boldness of Paradise Lost made all the more impressive the poem’s ultimate containment within the framework of divine design.

The risk of ruining sacred truths, however, was highly conspicuous. Lucretius’s sublime has enough parallels with Longinus to suggest that both writers were drawing on a common stock of classical writing on the sublime, such as the interest in storm-tossed seas, earthquakes, clouds, and volcanoes.18 Longinus’s sublime, like Lucretius’s, involves the imagination’s transcending the bounds of the universe, and it is stimulated by the indeterminate reach of heights and depths. There is a major difference, however: Longinus finds in this spectacle evidence for a divine grandeur to which our souls aspire; wonder leads to religious belief, admiration for a divine Author who alone could account for such order. This stress on wonder provides a link with the aesthetics of the baroque. Lucretius’s repeated refrain, by contrast, is nimirum, ‘no wonder’. As we have seen, wonder is certainly important to him, but only when connected with a grasp of the cosmos’ underlying realities. Just before describing the infinite universe, Lucretius writes that most people are fessus satiate videndi, weary from satiety of seeing, and are hence unable to see how wonderful the universe really is (2.1038) – which would require the extra force of dispicere or pervidere. The supernatural machineries and explanations they invent to accommodate this wonder in fact tame and diminish it. Lucretius attacks those more limited forms of wonder:

cetera quae fieri in terris caeloque tuentur
mortales, pavidis cum pendent mentibus saepe
et faciunt animos humilis formidine divom
depressosque premunt ad terram propterea quod
ignorantia causarum conferre deorum
cogit ad imperium res et concedere regnum.(6.50-55)

Thomas Creech’s translation of this passage added a phrase to heighten the anti-religious point:

The various WONDERS of the LOWER AIR
Perplex Mens doubtful Thoughts with vexing Care,
And make the WRETCHES bend with slavish FEAR:
For Ignorance of Causes heaves the Mind
To POWR’S ABOVE; as BIRDS soar high, when BLIND.
We see EFFECTS; but when their CAUSES lie
Beyond the Ken of vulgar REASON’s Eye,
We then ascribe them to the DEITY.19

Creech’s image of the bird flying high when blind may be a mischievous riposte to Marvell’s image of Milton as the sublime bird: the sublimity of religious mystery is simply a threat to safe navigation. At the start of the De rerum natura, Lucretius offers a false sublimity and horror, that of Religio:

Humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret
terris oppressa gravi sub religione,
quae caput a caeli regionibus ostendebat … (1.62–4)

Religio lowers from heaven with a horrible aspect. Burke praised these lines for their sublimity in avoiding specificity: ‘neither has the poet said a single word which might in the least serve to mark a single limb or feature of the phantom, which he intended to represent in all the horrors imagination can conceive’.20 For all the hold Religio has over mankind, it is ultimately illusory: the true, unsuperstitious vision of the gods as revealed in the proem to the third book is calming rather than menacing. There Lucretius offers ‘a sublime of the void, the gap experienced as gap, in contrast to the sublime of Religio, which might be described as a sublime of saturation, in a world too full of gods’.21

This Lucretian sublime would seem to be a much less likely point of reference for Puritan writers than the teleological and theocentric vision of Longinus. Lucretius’s great and challenging poem was hard to assimilate. It made two bold central claims: first that life on earth could have emerged without any form of divine agency, and secondly that a good life, far from depending on belief in the gods, was best led in total independence from the gods. Both these claims met massive resistance in the early modern period – as indeed they still do today – and the hostile stereotype of the ‘epicure’ presented the philosophy as leading inevitably to licence and debauchery. But early modern readers could be more intellectually open than today’s fundamentalists. The intellectual climate of the mid seventeenth century had encouraged a general Epicurean revival. Natural philosophers were finding the traditional Aristotelian framework for comprehending the universe inadequate and Epicurean atomism proved a more effective instrument for understanding many phenomena. In the 1640s and 1650s the philosopher Pierre Gassendi published a series of massive works on Epicureanism which rehabilitated all its aspects, and claimed that the very implausibility of atoms’ coming together by sheer chance to form a cosmos was a useful proof for the existence of God. Lucretius could then be valued as an opponent not of religion but of superstition – a word Lucy Hutchinson and John Evelyn chose for Religio, against the ‘Religion’ of the slightly later translation of Thomas Creech.22 His tone of enlightened superiority to dated myths could appeal to Protestants for whom baroque wonder at religious miracles was absurd. In the 1650s Lucretius was translated into English twice and possibly three times – more than into any other vernacular.23 The Epicurean revival in England has often been seen as a royalist phenomenon. One of those translators, however, was a committed Puritan, Lucy Hutchinson;24 and recent criticism has been revealing more and more of the Lucretian sub-text in Paradise Lost at which Marvell’s poem hinted.

This Puritan interest in Lucretius appears less incongruous in the light of the alliances formed in the 1640s and 1650s between varying groups which, after the collapse of the Church of England, feared the possible establishment of a persecuting Presbyterian church. The Independent group to which Milton and Hutchinson belonged was ready to ally itself with the absolutist and caustically anti-clerical Thomas Hobbes, and internationally to appeal to traditions of freedom of thought of all kinds.25 Though her husband was a Puritan and regicide, Lucy Hutchinson had many royalist contacts and her translation represented a degree of emulative identification with Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in the avant-garde pursuit of female intellectual ambition. Epicurean attacks on superstition accorded with the marked vein of anticlericalism that pervades her writings. Though in later life she turned to a particularly rigid Calvinism, her Genesis epic Order and Disorder still reworks lines from her Lucretius translation:

                                                mistaken zeal
Hath made more wounds than Gilead’s balm can heal

For when the priests war’s silver trumpets sound,
Cruelty rages without any bound[.}26

The final couplet is virtually a translation of Lucretius’s most famous line, Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (1.101), which Hutchinson renders as ‘Such mischeifes superstition could perswade’ and Creech as ‘Such Divelish Acts Religion could perswade!’. The line was provocatively placed on the title-page of Hobbes’ history of the Civil War, Behemoth. In his Latin political polemics, Milton several times adopted Lucretius’s language to describe his own defence of free thought against superstition.27 In his Areopagitica (1644), he defended the cause of ‘Philosophic freedom’, a phrase that had been used by Tommaso Campanella in his defence of Galileo, and was favoured by seventeenth-century freethinkers. Milton reminded his readers that ‘Lucretius without impeachment versifies his Epicurism to Memmius, and had the honour to be set forth the second time by Cicero so great a father of the Commonwealth; although himselfe disputes against that opinion in his own writings’. In noting tolerance of Epicureanism in ancient Rome, he was also recalling a more recent history of censorship. Though manuscripts and printed editions of Lucretius had first been widely diffused in Italy, between 1513 and 1647 no further editions were printed there, owing to worries about his attacks on the soul’s immortality. France, the Netherlands and Germany became the centres for the publication of Lucretius.28 Marchetti’s translation was refused a licence in Italy. Elsewhere in Areopagitica we read that the Bible itself ‘brings in holiest men passionately murmuring against providence through all the arguments of Epicurus’: if we can find atheism in the Bible, we should be able to cope with the De rerum natura. One of the books Milton singled out for praise, John Selden’s De jure naturali et gentium (1640) carried a quotation from Lucretius on its title-page.29 The Greek motto Selden inscribed on his books meant ‘freedom before all things’; and he safeguarded his own religious freedom to the extent that it is still impossible to determine whether he died a Christian or not.30

These strategic alliances between committed Protestants and anticlericalists with potentially conflicting agendas have been interpreted in very different ways. Gassendi is often said to have baptised Lucretius, meaning that an easy synthesis between Christianity and Epicureanism was possible.31 ‘Baptism’ is a little too unproblematic, since intellectual life offers no easy equivalent to holy water. Indeed, some scholars, most recently Paul Rahe, have argued that early modern Epicureanism probed far beyond Christian beliefs but deployed elaborate strategies of indirection to sustain a mask of orthodoxy: Rahe claims that ‘there are reasons to wonder whether Milton’s fidelity to Revelation was not, in fact, feigned’.32 Both alternatives posit writers who were entirely consistent and at ease with themselves; but the complex reception of Epicureanism reveals division at many levels, which can only be provisionally opened up here. Hutchinson was particularly divided: she was to show distinct signs of guilt at the extent of her earlier involvement with Lucretius, and yet she took the trouble to have a manuscript copied out many years after the original translation. Milton was readier to display his own confidence that he could engage with Lucretianism without damaging his religious commitment. His links with various ‘heresies’ current during the English Revolution have lent currency to Blake’s claim that he was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it’; but he also had a profound imaginative engagement with the view that devils were as illusory as an omnipotent God. He actively confronted the atheists’ party.

In one sense of the term, as the opening of book 3 shows, Lucretius was not an atheist: he did write of the gods. In the early modern period, however, ‘atheism’ was normally applied not simply to a denial of God’s existence but to the denial of a creating and continuing divine intervention in the world, and in that sense Lucretius was definitely an atheist: his gods are supplied by nature (3.23) and neither created the world nor take an interest in its affairs.33 His cosmos could thus be criticised on combined theological and aesthetic grounds. A powerful tradition of Renaissance poetics took poetic form as a parallel for the divine design of the universe. The Earl of Shaftesbury, retorting to Lucretius, pointed out that the word mundus or world was associated with the adjective for beautiful, and claimed that ‘in spite of his philosophy, [Lucretius] everywhere gives way to admiration and rapturous views of nature … He is transported with the several beauties of the world, even while he arraigns the order of it’.34 But Lucretius’s cosmos does have an underlying order, and the way it evades traditionally recognised formal patterns could evoke a sublimity transcending a tamer kind of beauty – because of his philosophy rather than in spite of it. In the end, his gods are of value less in themselves than as indices of what the human mind can do. They image the ataraxia or freedom from perturbation advocated by Epicurean philosophy, and this state can in principle be attained by humans: it is in this sense that Epicurus has a divine mind (divina mente, 3.15). Early modern editors inserted haud, ‘not’, before this phrase and took the passage to be asserting that the universe did not arise from a divine mind, that is, that it was not created by God. But Lucretius later repeats the claim that Epicurus was a god (5.8); he proceeds to gloss this as meaning that he was worthy to be counted in the number of the gods, since he discoursed divinely of them (5.50–54). There is a circularity here – to be divine is to discourse divinely of the divine – which suggests that for Lucretius these deities are useful fictions. He draws attention to the contradictory nature of these beings which do have bodies and yet evade the rules posited for bodies elsewhere. In this sense, the provocative claim that Epicurus made man equal to the gods, nos exaequat … caelo (1.79) amounts to the claim that he has raised their imaginations to a more sublime level.35 This is an instance of the ‘sublime of the gap’ between high and low; with the extra twist that in this universe, high and low are fundamentally the same.36

There are signs that both Milton and Hutchinson, though hardly agreeing that their God was a fiction, were drawn to Lucretius’s rejection of insufficiently sublime conceptions of the deity. In Order and Disorder, Hutchinson directly echoed Lucretius’s description of the gods in discussing the Trinity; though she emphatically rejected the idea that human nature could easily communicate with the divine:

                                 was it not sublime
Enough, above the lower world to climb

And in angelic converse to delight,

Although it could not reach the supreme height?

Hutchinson may here, as at several points in Order and Disorder, have been writing explicitly against a tendency in Paradise Lost to speculate unduly: Raphael’s strongly contrasting aspiration to raise ‘Human imagination to such highth Of Godlike power’ (Paradise Lost, 6.300-1) can be read as a translation of nos exaequat caelo. Milton also hints at the imagination’s limits, however, reminding his readers that his own portrayal of God is an inadequate human accommodation. Milton borrows from Lucretius the strategy of evoking an anthropomorphic myth and then correcting it: in ‘thus they relate, / Erring’ (Paradise Lost, 1.746-7), the enjambment opens up the godly poet’s more sublime perspective.38 If many readers have found Milton’s portrayal of God disturbing because too petulant and tyrannical, it is arguable that he faced a difficulty in creating a deity who sublimely transcended narrower conceptions but nonetheless involved himself in human affairs in a way Lucretius would have found demeaning. Marvell’s initial claim that Milton’s boldness might ruin the sacred truths has never been entirely dispelled. In one eloquent passage, Lucretius asked why there was so much injustice in the world if the gods intervened in it (2.1093-1104). He was indeed passionately murmuring against providence, as Milton had remarked of the book of Job. Strikingly, Lucy Hutchinson, having boldly confronted the arguments by translating the passage with some vigour, went on to recycle virtually every line in her Genesis epic, in a prolonged recantation.39

Milton places similar difficult questions at the heart of Paradise Lost. Adam asks Raphael:

                    what cause
Mov’d the Creator in his holy Rest
Through all Eternitie so late to build
In Chaos[.]40
(Paradise Lost, 7.90-3)

That ‘holy Rest’ recalls the remote Epicurean deities in their sedes … quietae (3.17). Adam’s question is given an extensive answer, which nonetheless leaves open many central cosmological issues. Milton is of course ultimately following:

That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos [.] (i.7-10)

The book of Genesis is his main pattern; celebratedly, Longinus had cited the book’s opening words as a classic instance of the sublime. But by the 1650s the authority of the Genesis story could no longer be accepted without question, and an array of reinterpretations was on offer.41 Michel de Marolles, who published the first French translation of Lucretius in 1650, later published an edition of Genesis with notes by Isaac de la Peyrère, who had argued that there must have been humans before Adam and Eve la Peyrère: printing of this edition was quickly halted, even though it acknowledged the superior authority of the Church.42

Milton’s description of Chaos draws on Lucretius as well as Scripture. He will have known the story that poetry brought Epicurus to philosophy: he was provoked by his scorn of the school-teachers who could not tell him the meaning of ‘Chaos’ in Hesiod.43 Hesiod had indeed said that Chaos came into being before all else; but Epicurus wanted to demystify such accounts of the cosmos, and Lucretius insists that the convergence of atoms, while admitting local contingencies, is governed by universal laws which account for life’s origins without any supernatural process.44 Milton combines mythical and Epicurean elements in a compound that continues to divide critics:

Before thir eyes in sudden view appear                                                      890
The secrets of the hoarie deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold                                                         895
Eternal Anarchie, amidst the noise
Of endless Warrs, and by confusion stand
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Maistrie, and to Battle bring
Their embryon Atoms  … 
                   To whom these most adhere,
Hee rules a moment; Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter
Chance governs all. Into this wilde Abyss,                                                910
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain                                                     915
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross. Nor was his ear less peal’d                                                  
With noises loud and ruinous (to compare
Great things with small) then when Bellona storms,
With all her battering Engines bent to rase
Some Capital City … 
(Paradise Lost, II, 890–900, 906–24)

The key question that continues to prompt critical debate parallels the one posed by Epicurus: is the whole of Milton’s universe the product of a good God? Critics have often suspected various forms of theologically-based heresy in Milton’s cosmology, but it has taken a long time for the Lucretian allusions to be fully recognised. This is in part because Milton has been aligned with various forms of vitalist monism current amongst the radical sects, whereas Lucretius’s materialism is seen as sharply distinct and highly mechanistic.45 Such distinctions, however, were not very clearly made at the time, when his phrase semina rerum could easily be assimilated to very different concepts of the seed, and in any case arguably simplify Lucretius’s position. In the Lucretian moment of the mid-seventeenth century, readers would probably have picked up some echoes that have not been so clear to later commentators. Milton revises Hesiod’s chronology to make Night coequal with Chaos rather than his daughter, implying a parallel with Lucretius’s alternation of matter and void. Later in the poem Satan describes night as ‘unoriginal’, without origin (10.477): that Milton coined this word himself indicates how he is straining at language to represent a boundless universe, though he does give the phrase a Satanic association. The imagery of warring atoms recurs in the De rerum natura; ‘The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave’ is a direct translation from the De rerum natura, where earth is omniparens eadem rerum commune sepulcrum (5.259), and the following line echoes Lucretius’s 5.434, nec mare nec caelum nec denique terra nec aer. Milton’s ‘to compare /Great things with small’, normally glossed with reference to Virgil’s Georgics, in this context would have been read as an allusion to Lucretius’s 2.112-24, a passage which compares dust-motes to the warring atoms found both below the threshold of vision and underlying the whole cosmos, dumtaxat rerum magnarum parva potest res / exemplare dare, ‘as far as a small thing can give an example of great things’ (2.123–4).

What are we to make of these Lucretian echoes? On one reading, they could serve to display the unattractiveness of matter without an animating God. Milton’s poetry, one could argue, resists the sublimity of the Lucretian infinite universe: in linking Chaos and Chance and casting them as umpires, he offers a jarring sense of incoherence at odds with Lucretius’s claim that contingency at the micro-level can nonetheless produce compounds of matter which follow orderly universal rules. Early modern thinkers like Gassendi, who questioned the possibility of the world’s coming together without divine agency, had an interest in heightening the chaotic nature of the primal atoms.46 A critic who claims that ‘Lucretius would have it that chaos is the condition of the whole universe’ is following the perspective offered by Milton in the Chaos passage. Lucretius himself, however, true to Epicurus’s suspicion of mythical entities, never uses the word ‘chaos’.47   Nor does he use casus, ‘chance’, to refer to cosmic processes – though it was provocatively inscribed on the title-page of Creech’s translation.

Through Milton’s God, ‘vast infinitude’ is ‘confin’d’ (3.711) God bids the boundless deep be placed

Within appointed bounds …
because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space (7.1678–70)

Where Milton’s variously drawn out lines normally give a sense of sublime boundlessness, here alliteration and assonance tie the two lines tightly together and prepare for an emphatic redefinition of space as different from Lucretius’s alternation of matter and vacuum.

Epicurean questions are not entirely dispelled, however. Adam’s question to Raphael matches, and has been partly suggested by, Eve’s earlier anxiety about the apparent disproportion between humanity and the scale of the cosmos:

But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes? (4.657–8)

Milton keeps coming back to such questions. They reveal a sense of strain in images of a harmoniously designed cosmos, a sense of a boundlessness that God may not fully control. Epicurus’ question about when Chaos began is not fully answered in Paradise Lost.48 It stands as a source of the ‘dark materials’ which inspired Philip Pullman to offer a materialist rereading of Milton. For all the negative aspects of Chaos in the passage just quoted, Milton retains a deep imaginative engagement with creative potential that accords with the republican sublime.49 As Noel Sugimura argues: ‘In exploring the problematic relationship between prime matter, Chaos, God, and space, Milton launches ideas that few of his contemporaries would have dared to articulate, let alone think’.50 He answers to, and in some ways takes further, Lucretius’s excitement at the poetic possibilities of the immensities of space. Lucretius had ended his first two books with an appeal to his readers to open their imaginations to the strange idea of an infinite universe, and it is this cosmic vision that arouses the poet’s voluptas and horror at the start of the third book. He is consciously writing of a ratio … non … tractata, ideas not yet treated (1.943-4). Milton echoes this phrase – amongst others – when he declares that he sings of ‘Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime’ (1.16). The Oxford English Dictionary gives two cosmic passages in Paradise Lost for the first usages of the modern sense of ‘space’ as ‘The immeasurable expanse in which the solar and stellar systems, nebulae, etc., are situated; the stellar depths’, referring to Paradise Lost, 1.650, 7.89; but the word had already appeared in that sense in Hutchinson’s Lucretius as she hunted for an equivalent for Lucretius’s summa loci (2.1042).51 The ideas of a plurality of worlds and infinity of space were current amongst avant-garde Protestant circles at the time Milton was composing his poem.52 There are signs of hesitation in Milton, however. His Raphael answers Adam’s cosmological questions by offering alternative Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe. This openness in part parallels Lucretius’s readiness to posit alternative hypotheses about celestial motions: for Epicureans, contemplating the cosmos was a good way of setting one’s life in perspective but should not lead to a restless quest for certainty. When Adam says he will not be led by such speculation to leave ‘the sweet of Life’ (8.184), he is echoing Lucretius’s phrase dulcia … solacia vitae (5.21). But whereas for Epicureans there are no hidden mysteries, Raphael insists that heaven is too high to know what passes there – Adam’s imagination cannot be lifted to such a godlike height after all.

Many of his potential readers, however, delighted in Lucretian speculations. The physician William Rand, who like Milton had links with Samuel Hartlib’s circle of reformers, rhapsodised:

And what greater Argument can be required of an Universal Intellect, then to be delighted with the Speculation of Infinite Space, & infinite matter, variously figured & marshalled into infinite Systemes of Worlds; the Subject of thoughts so transcendently heroical, as none can be capable of, but such as are full of that Infinite Spirit, the grand Choragus of this immortal Dance. A low, popular, & pusillanimous Spirit, præjudised, frighted & shackled with the superstition of vulgarly received maximes & tenets, could not allow of Lucretius.53

The ‘great Argument’ of Paradise Lost (1.24) offered a plurality, though not an infinity, of worlds (3.566–7), and appealed to this mid-century Protestant celebration of reformed great-mindedness against the anti-sublime spirit of the old religion. Rand invokes aesthetic as well as philosophical considerations: Lucretius’s cosmos, undesigned by any god, retains the noble spirit of its poetic creator. It is interesting that Rand moves from the infinity of space to another of Lucretius’s contentious themes. He was writing to John Evelyn in enthusiastic admiration of his Lucretius translation, and urging him to follow it up with a treatise defending the claim that the soul was mortal. The views of Epicurus and Lucretius, he believed, could reinforce those of the ‘sublime’ author of Hebrews. In the mid-seventeenth century, the traditional doctrine of the soul’s immortality was coming under question, both from philosophers who undermined the basis of its received Aristotelian underpinnings, and by heterodox Protestants who questioned its Biblical basis: the soul might be reunited with the body in the last days but until then it would sleep or die. This doctrine was common amongst the Independent cultural coalition, from Thomas Hobbes to Milton and John Hall. Though Lucy Hutchinson rejected mortalism, when describing the death of Abraham and Sarah in Order and Disorder she echoes her own translation of Lucretius’s description of the earth as womb and tomb and conspicuously refrains from envisaging their afterlife, perhaps to accommodate her language to the period of which she was writing.54 Rand’s letter to Evelyn shows that he found in Lucretius a natural ally: his third book offers a dazzling succession of arguments against the soul’s immortality. For Longinus, belief in the soul’s immortality was sublime; but Rand saw that a comparable claim could be made for the opposing view: in the closing passages of his third book, one of the most powerful parts of the poem, Lucretius insists that the quest for individual immortality, what Lucretius terms desiderium nostri, the desire for ourselves (3.922), is petty and self-obsessed. Milton argued at length for mortalism in his prose treatise Christian Doctrine, though the views presented in Paradise Lost are harder to tie down.55

Statue of Isaac Newton at Trinity College, Cambridge showing inscription in Latin 'Newton, who surpassed the human race in understanding'

Fig 2. Inscription (‘Newton, who surpassed the human race in understanding.’) on statue of Isaac Newton by Louis François Roubiliac in the antechapel of Trinity College, Cambridge
© Lydia Hamlett

Another figure for whom the mortality of the soul accorded with a grand view of the sublimity of the cosmos was Isaac Newton. A series of Neo-Latin poets found it possible to translate Lucretian language into the Newtonian cosmology.56 Whether or not his mortalism as well as his scientific genius was being invoked, Lucretius’s epitaph for Epicurus was inscribed on Newton’s memorial in Trinity College, Cambridge (fig.2).57   If Lucretius’s mortalism was a great stumbling-block for Evelyn, his politics also disturbed him. In his fifth book, Lucretius gives a lengthy account of the emergence of families and the state from an entirely secular standpoint, presenting government as emerging from the people rather than handed down by God or a divinely ordained legislator. For Evelyn, this was uncomfortably reminiscent of the democratic turbulence of the Puritan Revolution.58 The political valency of the Lucretian sublime was complex, for defeated royalists in the 1650s could sympathise with Lucretius’s advocacy of withdrawal from a corrupt political world, and his scorn for the corrupt institutions of the late republic. On the other hand, Lucretius’ emphasis on the popular origins of power blocked any possible sympathy with divinely ordained monarchy, and Virgil had needed to remystify the De rerum natura to link his own vision of the Roman state with the rule of Augustus.59 Where Virgil claims for Rome an imperium sine fine, an infinite rule (Aeneid, 1.279), Lucretius’s vision of friendship cut across the limits of the Roman state, and opens up the prospect of an infinite cosmos in which no political entity can be immune from change. Part of the sublimity of Lucretius’s epic is its rejection of the traditional topic of military glory in favour of intellectual victories: the triumph for which this commander is celebrated is an intellectual one (1.62-79), gained dictis, non armis, by words not weapons (5.50). Milton comparably rejects conventional dynastic epic matter for a universal subject (Paradise Lost, 9.27-41). Though the boundary-breaking Satan has often been seen as more sublime than his God, Milton had in mind Lucretius’s warnings against the political dangers of unbounded ambition. Satan’s

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n
(Paradise Lost, 1.262–3)

is countered by Adam’s

Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best [.] (12.561)

with an echo of Lucretius’s

ut satius multo iam sit parere quietum,
quam regere imperio res velle et regna tenere. (5.1129–30)

Adam is responding to a vision of infinite space,

all abyss,
Eternitie, whose end no eye can reach. (12.555–6)

Hutchinson rendered the passage in Lucretius, which comes as the poet narrates the transition from monarchy to constitutional rule, as

tis much better to obey,
And in a subjects humble state to stand,
Then to enjoy a crowne and vast command.60

Hutchinson, who had herself transcribed Denham’s translations from Virgil, knew that Lucretius’s 5.1130 had been reworked in Anchises’s celebrated address to Aeneas: tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento (Aeneid, 6.851). Lucretius’s version was pointedly anti-imperial, and Hutchinson closely imitated this passage from Lucretius’s fifth book in an anti-Augustan poem of her own.61

This brings us to a final aspect of the sublime: its possible gendered qualities. The Burkean opposition between the sublime and the beautiful easily lends itself to opposing masculine boldness to feminine charm. Studies of English republicanism have often argued that it exalted Machiavellian and specifically masculine virtù against a feminised monarchy, with Milton viewed as the ultimate masculinist.62 The Lucretian sublime has a masculine edge in the poem’s opening celebration of Epicurus’ intellectual victory as a military triumph. Margaret Cavendish increasingly moved away from Lucretian language, and one leading woman intellectual, Anne Conway, preferred a vitalist position to Epicurean materialism, and some feminist historians have found a gendered aspect in this preference.63 But many counter-arguments are possible. It was well known that in antiquity the Epicureans’ philosophical discussions were open to women, and Gassendi drew a parallel with a contemporary philosophising woman, Anna Maria van Schurman, who indeed invited him to write a treatise on women’s education.64 Lucretius’s military imagery is mustered precisely to contrast the empty glory of traditional imperial triumphs with the peaceful and private activity of mental exploration, and women could identify with this position. Marolles dedicated his translation to a leading woman intellectual and enthusiast for Lucretius, Queen Christina of Sweden. Epicurean materialism undercuts any absolute distinction between masculine animus and feminine anima, and between humans and animals. Adam’s question about the stars had after all been initiated by Eve, who had hinted at a cosmos more sublime than theistic bounds allowed. In that cosmic perspective, inequalities of the sexes might dwindle in significance, prompting Eve to hope that the apple will ‘render me more equal’ (9.823): this may be regarded as a different version from Raphael’s of nos exaequat caelo. In this case the parallel certainly indicates an unease on Milton’s part about female agency, as does the fact that Eve absents herself from the cosmic discussion with Raphael, even though he insists that she could have understood it. But women readers might respond differently. Another leading woman writer, Aphra Behn, certainly took inspiration from Lucretius’s phrase. In her poem to Thomas Creech, the translator of Lucretius, she declared that

Thou by this Translation dost advance
Our Knowledge from the State of Ignorance;
And Equal’st Vs to Man.65

Lucy Hutchinson made no such exalted claims, but the very fact of her engaging at such length with the De rerum natura indicated a degree of identification with figures like Cavendish and Christina. Indeed, the only points at which she extensively modifies her original, at the end of the fourth book, concern not Lucretius’s religious views but his treatment of women.66 She endorses him where he criticises libertinism, and translates his insistence that males and females share equal sexual pleasure, but introduces an ideal of companionate marriage in which both parties follow a common ethical norm. She is ready to be a faithful translator of Lucretius’s atheism but not of his sexual double standards.

Hutchinson was compiling her 1675 manuscript in a very different climate from the 1650s: now atheists were openly accepted at court and Dissenters were struggling for toleration. It is all the more remarkable that she continued to value her translation highly enough to have a fair copy made. She dedicated it to the Earl of Anglesey, to whom Milton had presented a copy of Areopagitica and who combined sympathy for Dissenters with strong interests in the new natural philosophy. He is likely to have known of the Italian translation through a meeting with Marchetti’s friend Lorenzo Magalotti. Such connections continued in a manuscript which circulated in Whig circles in the early eighteenth century: it containsMagalotti’s translation of the opening of Paradise Lost, 1.1–24 with Marchetti’s version of the openings of Lucretius’s first and second books, along with a tribute by an Italian woman poet, Maria Selvaggia Borghini.67   Marchetti’s translation, refused a licence in Italy, was first published in London. Milton’s call for a common cause of philosophic freedom in London and in Italy had been realised. A Whig poetics had emerged from the revolutionary sublime.68 How far the Lucretian sublime was ever completely contained is another story.

See also