Richard Savage Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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 entire section is 1,542 words.)