Samuel Johnson is perhaps best known as the central figure in Boswell’s biography of him but he was himself one of the earliest biographers to delve into the psychology of his subject. The LIFE OF RICHARD SAVAGE, which preceded his better-known series, the LIVES OF THE POETS, by thirty-five years, is one of his most interesting works from this standpoint. While he follows a roughly chronological pattern in tracing the life of the rather pathetic “Grub Street Hack,” Johnson relates in detail episodes which reveal the character traits that motivated all of Savage’s actions.
It is impossible to read any of the works of Johnson’s middle years, the periodical essays, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” or RASSELAS, without becoming familiar with his melancholy yet compassionate outlook on human behavior. The opening paragraph of the LIFE OF RICHARD SAVAGE shows the reader the mind and heart that could look upon Savage’s improvidence, his pride, and his licentiousness both critically and sympathetically: “It has been observed in all ages, that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station.”
Even gifts of intellect, less transitory than wealth or worldly power, are subject to the fluctuations of fortune, and it is the tragedy of wasted talent that Johnson traces in Savage’s life. Johnson had long shared with his friend Savage the dreary hand-to-mouth existence of the aspiring writer, and he knew well the temptations of such a way of life. However, he saw the root of his friend’s misfortunes in his unhappy origins.
Savage firmly believed that he was the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield and Earl Rivers and that he had been placed in the home of a nurse soon after his birth. He was in later life rejected and thwarted at every turn by his supposed mother; on one occasion, when Savage was in prison for killing a man in a tavern brawl, the countess even asked the queen to disregard the pleas of his friends for his pardon. Savage also accused her of telling his father that he was dead in order to deprive him of the inheritance that the earl left to his other natural children.
Savage made his accusations frequently and publicly; the countess claimed that her own child had died young, and most of her contemporaries, Boswell included, believed that Savage was the nurse’s child. Set against this theory is the fact that the poet received an unusually good early education, which he told Johnson was paid for by Lady Mason, mother of the countess. For Savage, her interest was sufficient proof of his identity, and he told his story over and over again, complaining of the blows he had been dealt by fortune. In his mind, the world, and especially the nobility to which his faithless parents belonged, owed him reparation for his rejection and for the paternal inheritance of which he felt he had been cheated. He lived on the charity of others for most of his life, recounting his sad story to win the sympathy and the hospitality of the well-to-do.
Johnson, who seems...
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