Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Creech, Thomas

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CREECH, THOMAS (1659–1700), translator, was born in 1659 at Blandford in Dorset. His father, also called Thomas Creech, died in 1720, and his mother, Jane Creech, died in 1693, both being buried in the old church in that town. They had two children, Thomas the translator and one daughter Bridget, who married Thomas Bastard, an architect of Blandford, and had issue six sons and four daughters. Creech's parents were not rich. His classical training was due to Thomas Curgenven, rector of Folke in Dorset, but best known as master of Sherborne school, to whom Creech afterwards dedicated his translation of the seventh idyllium of Theocritus, and to whom he acknowledged his indebtedness for his instruction in the preface to his translation of Horace. For his education material assistance was received from Colonel Strangways, a member of a well-known Dorsetshire family. In Lent term 1675 he was admitted as a commoner at Wadham College, Oxford, and placed under the tuition of Robert Pitt, the choice of the college being no doubt due to the fact that Pitt, as connected with his native county of Dorset, would aid in the lad's advancement. Creech's translation of one of the idyls of Theocritus is inscribed to his ‘chum Mr. Hody of Wadham College,’ and another is dedicated to Mr. Robert Balch, who at a later date was his ‘friend and tutor.’ If an expression of his own can be trusted, his attainments at this period of his life were below the level of his contemporaries. Two of his letters to Evelyn are printed in the latter's diary (1850 ed. iii. 267, 272), and from the first, written in 1682, it appears ‘that he was a boy scarce able to reckon twenty and just crept into a bachelor's degree;’ but the second part of this sentence is probably an exaggeration. He was elected a scholar of his college 28 Sept. 1676, and took the following degrees: B.A. 27 Oct. 1680, M.A. 13 June 1683, and B.D. 18 March 1696. Hearne has put on record the statement that when Creech ‘was of Wadham, being chamber-fellow of Hump. Hody, he was an extreme hard student,’ and there remains considerable evidence in support of this statement. From the same authority we find that ‘when Bach. of Arts he was Collector and making a speech as is usual for ye Collectors to do he came off with great applause, wch gained him great Reputation, wch was shortly after [1682] highly rais'd by his incomparable translation into English verse of Lucretius.’ He was one of the first scholars to benefit by Sancroft's reforms in the elections for fellowships at All Souls' College. When he put himself forward in the competition, there was nothing to recommend him but his talents; but according to Anthony à Wood he ‘gave singular proof of his classical learning and philosophy before his examiners,’ and was elected a fellow about All Saints day 1683. That Creech was ‘an excellt scholar in all parts of learning, especially in divinity, and was for his merits made fellow of All Souls,’ is the corroborative testimony of Hearne. His industry in study continued for some time after his election to this preferment, but he grew lazy at last, and the faults of his character became more and more marked. For two years (1694–6) he was the head-master of Sherborne School, but he then returned to Oxford, where his strangeness of manner was noticed by a shrewd don in 1698, and for six months before his death he had studied the easiest mode of self-destruction. It was probably with the object of shaking off this growing melancholia that he accepted the college living of Welwyn, to which he was instituted 25 April 1699, but the disease had by this time taken too strong a hold upon his mind, and he never entered into residence. After he had been missing for five days he was discovered (in June 1700) in a garret in the house of Mr. Ives, an apothecary, with whom he lodged. A circumstantial account of his suicide is given in the journal of Mr. John Hobson (Yorkshire Diaries, Surtees Society, 1877, p. 272). ‘He had prepared a razor and a rope, with the razor he had nick't his throat a little, which hurt him so much that he desisted; then he tooke the corde and tied himself up so low that he kneeled on his knees while he was dead.’ At the coroner's inquest Creech was found non compos mentis, but the precise reasons which had brought about this mental aberration were much debated at the time. One rumour current in his day was that he had committed suicide through sympathy with the principles of Lucretius, but this may be dismissed at once. The actual reasons were less fanciful. He wished to marry Miss Philadelphia Playdell of St. Giles, Oxford, but her friends would not consent to the marriage. Creech's constancy to this lady is shown in his will. It was dated 18 Jan. 1699, and proved 28 June 1700, and by it he divided his means, such as they were, into two parts, one of which he left to his sister Bridget Bastard for the use of his father during his lifetime and afterwards for herself, while he left the other moiety to Miss Playdell and appointed her sole executrix. She afterwards married Ralph Hobson, butler of Christ Church, and died in 1706, aged 34. Another and hardly less powerful motive was his want of money. Colonel Christopher Codrington, his brother-fellow at All Souls, had often proved his benefactor in money matters, and it is clear from Codrington's interesting letter to Dr. Charlett, which is printed in ‘Letters from the Bodleian,’ that with a little patience on Creech's part he would have again received from his friend the assistance which was expected. These two calamities, a disappointment in love and the pressure of pecuniary difficulties, were the strongest factors in unhinging the mind, naturally gloomy and despondent, of a man contemptuous of the abilities of others and fretting at his want of preferment. There were printed after his death two tracts: 1. ‘A Step to Oxford, or a Mad Essay on the Reverend Mr. Tho. Creech's hanging himself (as 'tis said) for love. With the Character of his Mistress,’ 1700. 2. ‘Daphnis, or a Pastoral Elegy upon the unfortunate and much-lamented death of Mr. Thomas Creech,’ 1700; second edition (corrected) 1701, and it is also found in ‘A Collection of the best English Poetry,’ vol. i. 1717. The first of these tracts is a catchpenny production; the second has higher merits. His portrait, three-quarters oval in a clerical habit, was given by Humphrey Bartholomew to the picture gallery at Oxford. It was engraved by R. White and also by Van der Gucht. The sale catalogue of his library, which was sold at Oxford on 9 Nov. 1700, is preserved in the Bodleian Library; but it contained no rarities, and the books fetched small prices.

Creech's translation of Lucretius vied in popularity with Dryden's Virgil and Pope's Homer. The son of one of his friends is reported to have said that the translation was made in Creech's daily walk round the parks in Oxford in sets of fifty lines, which he would afterwards write down in his chamber and correct at leisure. The title-page of the first edition runs ‘T. Lucretius Carus, the Epicurean Philosopher, his six books de Natura rerum, done into English verse, with notes, Oxford … 1682,’ and Creech's name is appended to the dedication to ‘George Pit, Jun. of Stratfield-Sea.’ A second edition appeared in the following year with an augmented number of commendatory verses in Latin and English, some of which bore the names of Tate, Otway, Aphra Behn, Duke, and Waller; and when Dryden published his translations from Theocritus, Lucretius, and Horace, he disclaimed in the preface any intention of robbing Creech ‘of any part of that commendation which he has so justly acquired,’ and referred to his predecessor's ‘excellent annotations, which I have often read and always with some new pleasure.’ Creech's translation of Lucretius was often reprinted in the last century, and was included in the edition of the British poets which was issued by Anderson. The best edition appeared in 1714, and contained translations of many verses previously omitted and numerous notes from another hand designed to set forth a complete system of Epicurean philosophy. The fame of this translation of Lucretius induced Creech to undertake an edition of the original work. It appeared in 1695 with the title ‘Titi Lucretii Cari de rerum natura libri sex, quibus interpretationem et notas addidit Thomas Creech,’ and was dedicated to his friend Codrington. Numerous reprints of this edition have been published, the highest praise being accorded to that printed at Glasgow in 1753, which has been styled beautiful in typography and correct in text. Creech's agreement with Abel Swalle for the preparation of this volume is among the Ballard MSS. at the Bodleian Library. The several books were to be sent on the first of each month from August 1692 to January 1693, and the pay was to be ‘ffour-and-twenty guinnea pieces of gold.’ Mr. H. A. J. Munro in his edition of Lucretius (vol. i. 1886 ed. p. 17 of introduction) speaks of his predecessor as ‘a man of sound sense and good taste, but to judge from his book of somewhat arrogant and supercilious temper,’ and describes his text, notes, and illustrations as borrowed mainly from Lambinus, attributing the popularity of Creech's work ‘to the clearness and brevity of the notes.’ By his success in Lucretius Creech was tempted to undertake the translation of other classical writers, both Greek and Latin. There accordingly appeared in 1684 ‘The Odes, Satyrs, and Epistles of Horace. Done into English,’ and dedicated by him to Dryden, who was popularly but unjustly accused of having lured poor Creech into attempting a translation which he shrewdly suspected would turn out a failure. Although it was reprinted in the same year, and again in 1688, 1715, 1720, and 1737, this version could not permanently hold its ground, and the reason for this want of lasting success may be found in the translator's confession in his preface that his soul did not possess ‘musick enough to understand one note.’ His name is now chiefly remembered from the circumstance that Pope prefaced his imitation of Horace, book i. epistle vi. with two lines, professedly an exact reproduction of Creech's rendering of the opening words of that epistle, though in reality they were reduced from three lines in his translation, and added thereto the couplet:

Plain truth, dear Murray, needs no flowers of speech,
So take it in the very words of Creech.

The other translations by Creech consisted of: 1. Several elegies from Ovid with the second and third eclogues of Virgil in a collection of ‘Miscellany Poems,’ 1684. 2. Laconick Apothegms, or remarkable sayings of the Spartans in ‘Plutarch's Morals,’ 1684, vol. i. pt. iii. 135–204; a Discourse concerning Socrates his Demon, ib. ii. pt. vi. 1–59; the first two books of the Symposiacks, ib. ii. pt. vi. 61–144, iii. pt. viii. 139–418. 3. Lives of Solon, Pelopidas, and Cleomenes in ‘Plutarch's Lives,’ 1683–6, 5 vols., an edition often reprinted in the first half of the eighteenth century. 4. Idylliums of Theocritus, with Rapin's discourse of Pastorals, done into English, 1684, and reprinted in 1721, which was dedicated to Arthur Charlett. 5. The thirteenth Satire of Juvenal, with notes, in the translation ‘by Mr. Dryden and other eminent hands,’ 1693. 6. Verses of Santolius Victorinus, prefixed to ‘The compleat Gard'ner of de la Quintinye, made English by John Evelyn,’ 1693. 7. The five books of M. Manilius containing a system of the ancient astronomy and astrology, done into English verse, with notes, 1697. 8. Life of Pelopidas in the ‘Lives of Illustrious Men’ by Corn. Nepos, translated by the Hon. Mr. Finch, Mr. Creech, and others, 1713. Creech was engaged to the public at the time of his death for an edition of Justin Martyr, who ‘was his hero,’ and more than fifty sheets of notes which were found among his papers were lent to Dr. Grabe. These were pronounced ‘very well done, only that there were some things in them very singular and would be accounted amongst men of skill heterodox.’ Pope attributed the defects of Creech's translation of Lucretius to his imitating the style of Cowley, but acknowledged that he had done more justice to Manilius. Joseph Warton, with more warmth of character, praised the Lucretius as well as many parts of the Theocritus and Horace. Creech's translation of Juvenal's thirteenth satire was deemed by the same critic equal to any of Dryden's.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iv. 739–40; Spence's Anecdotes, 130–1, 251–2; Jacob's Poets, i. 38–9; Burrows's All Souls, 318–19; Rel. Hearnianæ (1857), ii. 583, 608; Hearne's Remarks (Doble's ed.), i. 73, 305, 358, 391, ii. 465; Letters from Bodleian, i. 45, 52, 54, 128–33; Wood's Antiquities of Oxford (Gutch), ii. 967; Biog. Brit. (Kippis); Hutchins's Dorset (1796), i. 135, 139 (1864 &c. ed.), iv. 290; Ballard MSS. vol. xx.; Cibber's Poets, iii. 186–192.]

W. P. C.