Richard Savage 1697-1743
English poet, playwright, and essayist.
Savage's literary reputation rests almost entirely on two poems, The Bastard (1728) and The Wanderer (1729). Based on his bitter antagonism toward the woman he claimed was his mother, the poems provoked a scandal that garnered more attention than the literary quality of the works themselves. In addition to these two pieces, Savage wrote several other poems, plays, and essays during his lifetime, but his contemporaneous fame rested mostly on the events of his life, including his imprisonment for murder. Savage's memory has endured, in part due to his friend Samuel Johnson's biography of him, titled Life of Mr. Richard Savage, as well as his inclusion of Savage in his 1779 Lives of the English Poets. Today Savage's works are read more for insights into the life and writings of his famous biographer rather than for their own merits.
Little is known for certain about Savage's childhood, since most details about his early years were supplied by Savage himself. He claimed to have been born in Holborn in 1697, the illegitimate son of Anne Mason (wife of the Earl of Macclesfield) and her lover, Earl Rivers. Lady Macclesfield never denied giving birth in secret to two children by Earl Rivers, but she stated that both children had died in infancy. Savage, who grew up in foster homes, maintained that when he was nine years old his nurse bequeathed him papers proving his parentage. While no independent evidence has corroborated Savage's claim, most of Savage's biographers, Johnson and Clarence Tracy included, accepted their subject's claim to nobility. Regardless, Savage grew up poor and unhappy, working for a time as a shoemaker's apprentice. The first official record of Savage comes from his arrest in London in 1715 for possessing a censored political pamphlet.
Savage's early adulthood in London was spent pursuing a living by publishing occasional poems, essays, and plays. In 1718 his Love in a Veil was performed three times at the Drury Lane Theatre, followed in 1723 by four performances of his Tragedy of Sir Thomas Overbury. From this second play he earned a modest income, as well as a few good reviews. In February 1726 Savage published Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands, a work known more for its identification and denunciation of Mrs. Brett (his mother, Lady Macclesfield, who had since remarried) in the volume's preface than the fourteen poems of his own that Savage included in the collection. This edition was apparently suppressed, most likely by Mrs. Brett and her nephew, Lord Tyrconnel, and Savage was probably paid to stop publication of the Miscellaneous Poems, which reappeared the following September minus the inflammatory preface.
In 1727, while drinking at an inn, Savage stabbed a man to death following a heated argument over the availability of a room. He was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to die by execution. His trial and conviction were a local sensation, and many of Savage's friends, including writer and publisher Aaron Hill, Alexander Pope, actress Anne Oldfield, and even Lord Tyrconnel appealed to the king for clemency. In 1728 the king pardoned Savage and he was freed.
Though Savage's claim that he was the son of the former Lady Macclesfield had been the topic of numerous published accounts as early as 1719, after his pardon, Savage became even more vocal in his allegations. In 1728 he published The Bastard, which celebrated the freedom and self-sufficiency his illegitimacy had brought him, while also greatly tarnishing the reputation of Mrs. Brett, the woman Savage claimed to be his mother, and to whom the poem was dedicated. That year Savage moved into the home of Lord Tyrconnel, where he would stay for seven years. This arrangement was possibly made in exchange for Savage's ceasing his attacks on Mrs. Brett. The time in Tyrconnel's home was Savage's most productive literary period, and he published, among other things, the long allegorical poem The Wanderer. Disappointed at having lost the post of Poet Laureate to Colley Cibber, Savage, in a typical pique, assumed the role of “volunteer laureate,” composing a poem on the Queen's birthday for seven consecutive years from 1732 to 1738.
By late 1737, the year he probably met Johnson, Savage was living on the streets of London, surviving only through the kindness of friends. In 1739 Pope attempted to alleviate Savage's poverty by raising an annual subscription of 50 pounds to set up Savage in retirement in Swansea. Pope hoped that Savage would devote himself to writing, but after drinking away the money, Savage courted a wealthy widow and Welsh patrons of the arts. In 1742 Savage attempted to relocate back to London but ran out of money in Bristol. Pope, angered that his friend squandered the funds he had sent him on alcohol, finally refused any more financial assistance. In 1743 Savage was convicted of debt and imprisoned in a Bristol jail, where he died shortly thereafter.
Savage began his literary career as a playwright. He claimed to have written three plays, although Woman's a Riddle, a comedy of errors based on a Spanish play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, may have been written by Christopher Bullock, from whom Savage may have stolen the unpublished manuscript. In 1718 Savage saw the production of Love in a Veil, also based on a Calderón play. Although there is little dispute that Savage authored this work, it is considered an inferior piece. A 1723 tragedy based on real events and personalities, Sir Thomas Overbury, enjoyed a better reception. Savage also wrote essays, usually satirical in nature, poking fun of both his enemies and his friends, and often even himself. Though these essays are little remembered today, they earned him a reputation as a caustic wit and malicious gossip. Savage also earned the dubious distinction of supplying Pope with the stories and hearsay that appeared in the latter's 1729 Dunciad.
During his lifetime, Savage was known primarily as a poet, and some of his work appeared in literary journals and magazines. Fourteen of his poems were also published in the 1726 Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands. None of them, however, received anywhere near the attention or acclaim that The Bastard and The Wanderer did. The Bastard was and remains Savage's best-known work, its glorification of his own “bastard” birth barely concealing a deep animosity toward the mother he blamed for his unassisted life. The Wanderer is a more ambitious poem, its two thousand lines written in heroic couplets full of classical allusions. Some of the most quoted sections of The Wanderer speak of the cruelty of mothers, whom Savage compared to snakes, wolves, and murderers. The bulk of Savage's poetry was not collected and published until long after his death; the first complete edition, in two volumes, edited by Thomas Evans, was published in 1775.
Savage's repeated claim that he was the illegitimate son of living English nobility, combined with the extremes of his life, friendships, and writing provoked an early interest in the artist. While he was alive, numerous pamphlets and biographies appeared, rehearsing the sordid details of Savage's supposed abandonment and subsequent hard life. Despite the sensationalism surrounding his private life, Savage was taken seriously in his own time as a writer. His tragedy, Sir Thomas Overbury, received mostly favorable reviews, and The Monthly Review noted that it “showed signs of genius.” He was also consistently praised for his poetry, and Johnson wrote in his biography of Savage that his friend possessed unusual imagination, observation, and originality; his criticism of The Wanderer was more ambivalent, calling it a “heap of shining materials,” supreme in its imagery, flawed in its organization. Pope claimed to like the allegory more each time he read it. While The Wanderer may have been Savage's masterpiece, it was The Bastard that had greater popular appeal, going through six editions in London and Dublin the first year it was released. While it is true that part of the poem's popularity was due to the scandal it described, it is also true that contemporary critical reception of Savage's poetry was generally positive. Flaws in his work were explained away by his childhood misfortune, while its poetic heights were seen as the work of natural genius.
Twentieth-century critical commentary on Savage's literary output is rare. In most cases scholars have tended to gloss over Savage's writing as they continue to describe the details of his life, most often in attempts to better understand Johnson's role as his biographer. Those who treat Savage seriously in his own right do so rarely, and only one biography of the writer has been published in the twentieth century, by Clarence Tracy. Tracy's 1953 biography and 1962 edition of The Poetical Works of Richard Savage are among the only modern assessments of Savage's entire literary career. While The Bastard remains the poem most associated with Savage, The Wanderer has also generated some scholarly interest. The current view differs only in degree from that of Johnson's: the poem's imagery is praised while the poem's structure is regarded as “disjointed” and even “incoherent.” Savage's essays and plays are mentioned mostly in passing, and most commentators admit that his poetry is rarely good enough to be read for its own sake, though they insist, as John Dussinger has written, that it can reward readers with “moments of flickering articulation.”
*Woman's a Riddle (play) 1716
The Convocation: or, a Battle of Pamphlets (poetry) 1717
Love in a Veil: a Comedy (play) 1718
The Tragedy of Sir Thomas Overbury (play) 1724
The Authors of the Town; a Satire (poetry) 1725
Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands [publisher and contributor] (poetry) 1726
A Poem, Sacred to the Glorious Memory of Our Late Most Gracious Sovereign Lord King George (poetry) 1727
The Bastard. A Poem, Inscribed with All Due Reverence to Mrs. Bret, Once Countess of Macclesfield (poetry) 1728
The Wanderer: A Poem. In Five Canto's (poetry) 1729
An Author to Be Lett [as Iscariot Hackney] (pamphlet) 1729
A Poem to the Memory of Mrs. Oldfield (poetry) 1730
Verses, Occasion'd by the Right Honourable the Lady Vicountess Tyrconnell's Recovery at Bath (poetry) 1730
The Volunteer Laureat. A Poem. Most Humbly Address'd to Her Majesty on Her Birthday (poetry) 1732
The Genius of Liberty. A Poem. Occasion'd by the Departure of the Prince and Princess of Orange (poetry) 1734
The Progress of a Divine. A Satire (poetry) 1735
Of Public Spirit in Regard to Public...
(The entire section is 242 words.)
SOURCE: Tracy, Clarence. “The Stage and the Green-Room,” “The Hillarian Circle,” and “Apogee.” In The Artificial Bastard: A Biography of Richard Savage, pp. 38-103. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.
[In the following essays, Tracy discusses Savage's dramatic career, examines his relationships with his friends and enemies, relates events surrounding Savage's trial for murder, and analyzes his two greatest poems, “The Bastard” and “The Wanderer.”]
THE STAGE AND THE GREEN-ROOM
Savage's private life before 1716 is largely unknown to us, but at this time we begin to see him in a setting of acquaintances and friends. The first of these was a Mrs. Lucy Rodd Price, a grass widow living in chambers in Gray's Inn, where, we are told, she “often took upon her to act as a Counsellor at Law.”1 She had been separated from her husband on grounds of adultery twenty-five years earlier. Since the separation, her husband had become a baron of the Exchequer Court, and at his death coldly bequeathed his wife £20 for mourning.2 She, for her part, must have been living a precarious existence; as a woman she could not plead in any court, and her very presence in Gray's Inn was contrary to the rules. Her legal activities must have been confined to drafting documents and performing other routine services for needy and gullible clients. But...
(The entire section is 29815 words.)
SOURCE: Boyce, Benjamin. “Johnson's Life of Savage and Its Literary Background.” Studies in Philology 53 (1956): 576-98.
[In the following essay, Boyce examines the many biographies written about Savage from 1715 to 1744, including the one by Samuel Johnson.]
Among the many biographies written by Samuel Johnson the most readable one, the one of greatest intrinsic interest, must surely be his early, anonymously published Life of Richard Savage (1744). It has usually been regarded as a fine illustration of Johnson's theory, announced much later,1 that a biographer should have eaten and drunk and lived familiarly with his subject. That view of the Savage is proper. But it may also prove illuminating to consider it in connection with Johnson's practice, well established in the eight biographies he had already published, of compiling his work from previous printed accounts, with some effort to reconcile, interpret, and moralize the material. The superiority of the Life of Savage is of course due most of all to its containing Johnson's affectionate recollections of his frail and talented friend. But its literary quality also derives from its printed sources, and these are not uninteresting.
The biography of the man who called himself Richard Savage has recently been rewritten with as much fullness as now seems possible.2 The bizarre story...
(The entire section is 8967 words.)
SOURCE: Tracy, Clarence. Introduction to The Poetical Works of Richard Savage, edited by Clarence Tracy, pp. 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
[In the following essay, Tracy reviews some of Savage's most important works, discusses the critical attention they received from his contemporaries, and offers a short bibliography of editions of the poet's works that appeared after his death in 1743.]
Eighteenth-century readers thought highly of Savage as a writer, laying his shortcomings to the charge of his upbringing, his education, and his misfortunes. As a mere boy, known only as the author of some ‘treasonable and seditious pamphlets’, he was already recognized in Grub Street and employed in correcting the work of a less talented writer of Jacobite propaganda. A few years later, when he had emerged from the underworld, Aaron Hill spoke of his ‘genius’, painstakingly criticized his work, and helped him get it into print. Pope read The Wanderer three times through, liking it better with each reading.1 And Samuel Johnson, his greatest admirer, described him shortly after his death in 1743 as ‘a man whose writings entitle him to an eminent rank in the classes of learning’,2 and bestowed special praise on The Wanderer, The Bastard, The Triumph of Health and Mirth, and the last of the Volunteer Laureats. To meet the public...
(The entire section is 3791 words.)
SOURCE: Tracy, Clarence. “Some Uncollected Authors XXXVI: Richard Savage d. 1743.” The Book Collector 12, no. 3 (autumn 1963): 340-49.
[In the following excerpt, Tracy recounts Savage's claims regarding his parentage, and offers a short summation of the editions of his poetry that were published before and after his death.]
Richard Savage's extraordinary life is known to most students of English literature through the famous biography by Samuel Johnson, to say nothing of later versions of his story by novelists and playwrights. Though modern research has added fresh details to the familiar outlines, the basic mystery remains. Who was Richard Savage? From the occasion in 1715 when he identified himself before a magistrate as ‘Mr. Savage, natural son to the late Earl Rivers’, to the end of his life, he stuck to the same story and—what is more remarkable—convinced almost everybody who mattered (except the woman whom he called his mother) that it was true. The Queen herself supported him with charity, and the most respectable people valued his acquaintance. Indeed, since Lord Rivers had been a notorious rake and was known to have provided in his will for several bastards and their mothers, there was no good reason for doubting the young man's assertions. At one time he even had in his possession some documentary ‘proofs’ of his identity, though what they could have amounted to it is...
(The entire section is 1143 words.)
SOURCE: Ellis, Frank H. “Johnson and Savage: Two Failed Tragedies and a Failed Tragic Hero.” In The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, pp. 337-46. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.
[In the following excerpt, Ellis explores Samuel Johnson's friendship with Savage, the latter's failed play Sir Thomas Overbury, and Johnson's fascination with Savage despite his many failings.]
Two failed tragedies lie in the background of the ill-sorted relationship between Richard Savage and Samuel Johnson. Irene: A Tragedy and The Tragedy of Sir Thomas Overbury were indeed one of the few common denominators between Johnson and Savage. Otherwise the ratio between them was oddly proportioned. Savage's fascination for Johnson arose from his unquestionable possession of the very thing that Johnson lacked—the thing that young Samuel Johnson, like every young person, calls “Knowledge of Life.” Savage had killed a man in a drunken brawl in a bawdy house. “Knowledge of Life was indeed his chief Attainment,” Johnson says.1
But not just anyone “acquainted with all the Scenes of Debauchery”2 could have so fascinated this serious and slightly prudish, twenty-nine-year-old married man. Savage's secondary attainments were equally irresistible. His origins were an impenetrable mystery:...
(The entire section is 2649 words.)
SOURCE: Dussinger, John A. “‘The Solemn Magnificence of a Stupendous Ruin’: Richard Savage, Poet Manqué.” In Fresh Reflections on Samuel Johnson: Essays in Criticism, edited by Prem Nath, pp. 167-82. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1987.
[In the following essay, Dussinger argues that Savage should be remembered for his poetic work rather than his strange life, concluding that even if Savage's poetry was not as great as Samuel Johnson claimed, it shows evidence of true brilliance.]
Although no new evidence has turned up since the eighteenth century to establish whether Richard Savage was indeed the bastard son of the Countess of Macclesfield, modern scholars have sometimes precluded that he was an impostor rather than adopt the judgment of Boswell, himself inclined to disbelief, that “the world must vibrate in a state of uncertainty as to what was the truth.”1 Needless to say, without complete faith in Savage's veracity Johnson would probably never have written his masterly account; but more to the purpose of this essay, without confidence in his friend's poetic talent he would not have had a biographical hero at all but merely a pathetic victim of delusion and misfortune. Despite the emphasis in the Life of Savage on the subject of poetic genius, however, subsequent commentary has either ignored or quietly prejudged this writer's literary merits.2...
(The entire section is 5526 words.)
SOURCE: Viator, Timothy J. “Richard Savage on Colley Cibber: ‘Idle’ Verse and the Duties of a Poet.” English Language Notes 26, no. 2 (December 1988): 24-29.
[In the following essay, Viator chides fellow critic Clarence Tracy for not referring, in his biography of Savage, to a letter Savage wrote to Reverend Thomas Birch, reflecting the poet's criteria for good poetry and showing his disdain for England's then-Poet Laureate, Colley Cibber.]
Clarence Tracy in The Artificial Bastard: A Biography of Richard Savage refers to a series of eleven letters that Savage wrote to Reverend Thomas Birch between 1734 and 1739. By focusing on Savage and Birch's business relationship, however, Tracy omits the full details of the correspondence, a noteworthy omission since he states that the letters form “the only considerable series of [Savage's] letters that has survived.”1 In particular, Tracy fails to discuss or reprint fully a revealing letter, dated September 1734, which is the only one of Savage's letters to Birch in which the poet comments about poetry, and in fact, with one exception, anything other than superficial and brief invitations, thank you notes, and requests for favors. The letter exemplifies, in general, Savage's dislike of any poet who, by writing “idle” verse, has failed in his duty as poet to be “teacher and prophet” and, in particular, attacks Colley Cibber,...
(The entire section is 1843 words.)
SOURCE: Erwin, Timothy. “Introduction” to The Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1727), by Samuel Johnson, pp. iii-xiii. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1988.
[In the following essay, Erwin discusses Samuel Johnson's use of the anonymous 1727 Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage for his own biography of Savage, arguing that Johnson was often quick to look at some of the more sordid details of his subject's life.]
When Richard Savage passed away late in the summer of 1743 his friend Samuel Johnson put other projects aside to begin the biography that would later become the first of the Lives of the Poets. Johnson made known his intention in the August number of the Gentleman's Magazine, and the Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers (hereafter Account) was published the following February.1 For information regarding the early career, Johnson depended in large part upon the book reproduced here in facsimile, The Life of Mr. Richard Savage (hereafter Life). This anonymous pamphlet had been composed some sixteen years earlier, in 1727, to stir public opinion in defense of Savage, who had committed a murder in a coffeehouse altercation. Besides pleading successfully for a royal pardon and running quickly into three editions,2 the brief Life provided Johnson with certain attitudes...
(The entire section is 3501 words.)
Anonymous. “The Life of Richard Savage.” In The Poetical Works of Richard Savage, pp. 3-96. New York: William A. Davies, 1805.
Detailed biography of Richard Savage, including brief discussions of his works.
Tracy, Clarence. The Artificial Bastard: A Biography of Richard Savage, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953, 164 p.
The standard scholarly biography of Savage.
Whitehead, Charles. Richard Savage: A Romance of Real Life. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1896, 466 p.
A late-nineteenth century biography of Savage, which counters the claim made by James Boswell that Savage was an impostor.
Bundock, Michael. “Johnson's ‘Vile Melancholy’ and The Life of Savage.” The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual 11 (2000): 177-85.
Response to the 1998 article by Aaron Stavisky, arguing that even if Savage had relationship problems with women, this fact should not lead one to assume that Savage's biographer, Samuel Johnson, had similar issues.
Hogan, Floriana T. “Notes on Savage's Love in a Veil and Calderón's Peor Está que Estaba.” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 8, no. 1 (1969): 23-9.
(The entire section is 455 words.)