Richard Savage Critical Essays


(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 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”