|Seventeenth-century natural philosophy involved looking backwards as well as forwards, to classical literature as well as new inventions. The period saw several translations of the Latin poet Lucretius, whose radical poem De rerum natura proposed a materialist and Epicurean view of the world. Many seventeenth-century women writers were interested in Lucretius and the first major translation of his work was by Lucy Hutchinson, a puritan poet and biographer of her husband, Colonel John Hutchinson (one of the Parliamentarians who signed Charles I's death warrant). Hutchinson’s translation remained in manuscript, however, while Wadham scholar Thomas Creech published his in 1682. For the second edition of Creech’s work in 1683, poet, dramatist and prose-writer Aphra Behn was commissioned to write a dedicatory poem. Behn’s poem both admires Creech and critiques the position of women in seventeenth-century intellectual culture. While Margaret Cavendish had written about the exclusion of women from academic institutions (such as universities and the Royal Society), Behn writes about the exclusion of women from another area of knowledge, that written in Latin. She lavishly praises and thanks Creech for making such knowledge available to women,
Till now I curst my Sex and Education,
And more the scanted Customs of the Nation,
Permitting not the Female Sex to tread
The Mighty Paths of Learned Heroes Dead:
The Godlike Virgil and great Homer's Muse
Like Divine Mysteries are conceal'd from us
Behn imagines Creech’s poem providing knowledge of the world in the same way as the apple tasted by Eve,
So Thou by this Translation dost advance
Our Knowledge from the State of Ignorance;
And Equal'st Vs to Man!
This playful use of the Bible for a feminist joke perhaps pushes the boundaries of religious decorum. Behn’s poem also audaciously foregrounds the heterodoxy of Lucretius’ philosophical stance. She writes of Creech’s translation,
It Pierces, Conquers and Compels,
Beyond poor Feeble Faith's dull Oracles.
Faith the despairing Souls content,
Faith the Last Shift of Routed Argument.
This is pretty bold stuff, and Creech himself was uncomfortable with Behn’s interpretation of his radicalism in translating Lucretius. For the version of Behn’s poem prefacing Creech’s translation, these lines were doctored, and read instead
It Pierces, Conquers and Compels
As strong as Faith resistless Oracles,
Faith the Religious Souls content,
Faith the secure Retreat of Routed Argument.
Behn’s depiction of Lucretius as undermining empty religion is replaced by a portrayal of Lucretian philosophy as similar to, tacitly endorsing, unquestionable faith.