Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
In Life of Richard Savage (the full title is An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers), his first full-length biography, published anonymously, Johnson describes the sensational life of a Grub Street writer and poet who was his friend and sometime companion in frolic and poverty. When Savage died in 1743, Edward Cave, the publisher, hurried to make arrangements with Johnson to write Savage’s notorious story. Johnson had to work quickly. He made some attempts to consult records and examine original documents, but he was less concerned with factual accuracy than with telling the truth about the character of a man who, though unfortunate, had brought most of his misfortunes on himself. Clearly, Johnson was aware of his friend’s many shortcomings. He also wished to defend Savage’s memory from malign attacks. Even more, however, he wanted to write an account that would be useful to readers both as an inspiration and as a warning.
According to Johnson’s account, which believed Savage’s claim to high birth, Savage’s mother, Lady Macclesfield, who wished to escape from her marriage, stated that she had committed adultery and that the child she carried had been fathered by Earl Rivers. Her husband’s application to Parliament to have the marriage dissolved was successful, and Lady Macclesfield’s baby was declared illegitimate. When the baby was born, Rivers acknowledged his paternity but took no other notice of the child. The baby’s mother, who remarried soon after her divorce, sent him to a poor woman to be reared as her own and paid no more attention to him. The baby came to be called Richard Savage. His maternal grandmother and his godmother took enough interest in him to pay for his care and his education, but because his mother stated that he had died, Rivers made no provision for him in his will. Thus, Richard Savage lost a legacy of six thousand pounds. Then, Savage’s mother tried to have him sent to the American plantations and, failing that, had him apprenticed to a shoemaker. When his nurse died, Savage found among her papers evidence showing who he really was. He began an unsuccessful lifelong campaign, which alternated pleas and vilification, to be recognized and supported by his mother.
Savage must have had considerable charm, for he was helped by the writers Sir Richard Steele and Aaron Hill and the actress Anne Oldfield, who were impressed by his talent for writing and conversation. A short spurt of good fortune ended when Savage was implicated in a murder, tried, found guilty, and condemned to death. His mother obstructed his friends’ efforts to get him a reprieve, but eventually he received a royal pardon.
The patronage of Lord Tyrconnel, his supposed cousin, enabled Savage to return to society and made him a literary lion. Yet Savage’s frequent drunkenness, outrageous behavior, and sale of a set of books that Tyrconnel had lent him caused a split between them and the end of Tyrconnel’s financial support. Savage, ever resilient, addressed Queen Charlotte as her “Volunteer Laureate” in a poem on her birthday and succeeded in getting a small annual pension from her. When that, or any other money came his way, Savage spent it on wine and jollity, and soon he was without any money, and often without food or shelter. His friends proposed that he go to Wales, where he could write and live cheaply. After a year, however, he was back in London, living in dissipation and want. His friends, their funds and their patience exhausted, let him be taken to Newgate Prison, where at least he would have shelter from the elements. For six months, all went well. Savage was well treated by his jailers. He received visits from his friends and continued to write. In the summer of 1743, however, he became ill and died within a few weeks.
In the Life of Richard Savage, Johnson discusses briefly some of Savage’s works, such as The Wanderer (1729) and The Bastard (1728), two poems concerned mainly with Savage’s own life and misfortunes; An Author to Be Let (1729), a pamphlet that unwisely satirized nearly everyone in the literary establishment of the day; and two poems, The Volunteer Laureate (1732, the already-mentioned birthday poem addressed to the queen) and London and Bristol Compared (1744), which Johnson quotes in full. Savage’s writings were striking, original, and dignified, says Johnson. They might be faulted for uniformity and occasional harshness of style, but they were nonetheless remarkable performances, considering the unfavorable circumstances under which they were written.
Johnson is more interested in discussing Savage’s character than his writings. This bent is particularly obvious at the end of the account, where he points out Savage’s virtues and abilities, as well as his vices and weaknesses. Savage did not look like a ruffian. His manner was dignified, his mind was strong and agile, his conversation was stimulating, and his judgment of literature and people was sound. He was often compassionate and generous. Yet he was a waster of his own considerable talents, a slave to his passions, and a victim of dissipation. He was unreliable. He was inordinately vain of his abilities and his writings.
Johnson does not condemn Savage or allow others, especially those “who have slumber’d away their time on the down of affluence,” to speak ill of Savage or his writings. Instead, Savage’s accomplishments should be an inspiration to those who also suffer deprivation or a lesson to those who do not, showing that imprudence and dissipation “make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible.”