Life of Mr Richard Savage
On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, among thieves and beggars, was to be found the author of “The Wanderer,” the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist, whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.
Cases in which one reads a biography principally from an interest in the biographer are comparatively rare, but here is one. Nothing against Richard Savage, of course, who was a friend of Johnson’s and an accomplished poet who lived a noteworthy life, but I, at least, decided to read his biography mainly from a desire to spend time with Johnson.
Richard Savage came into the world the son of a vindictive woman who, in a strange reversal of natural inclination, did all in her power to ruin him from the outset, first by refusing to care for him, later by attempting to disinherit him and, later still, scheming to send him into exile. When a man and finding himself accused of a crime, his mother entered the lists to testify against his good character. He never knew the love and comfort of a home.
Johnson, in a sally of dry wit, traces the influence of this harsh childhood on his later vocation as a man of letters:
[He] was reduced to the utmost miseries of want, while he was endeavouring to awaken the affection of a mother. He was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.
Savage become a poet, specifically, though never a greatly successful one in the commercial markets, and, like Johnson himself, never quite successful at obtaining the patronage of the great. He lived the life of a vagabond, drifting from one “situation” to another, dependent on the charity of others for his basic needs. He was inconstant and heedless in his handling of money; writes Johnson:
To supply him with money was a hopeless attempt; for no sooner did he see himself master of a sum sufficient to set him free from care for a day than he became profuse and luxurious.
And he was generous not only to his friends. Johnson relates the story, already alluded to, of Savage’s arrest over a violent altercation, for which he stood trial under penalty of death. A woman testified falsely against him during the trial, yet, upon his eventual acquittal, she, being destitute, nonetheless approached him to beg assistance, to which he responded by giving her what money he had, on which act Johnson comments:
This is an action which in some ages would have made a saint, and perhaps in others a hero, and which, without any hyperbolical encomiums, must be allowed to be an instance of uncommon generosity, an act of complicated virtue, by which he at once relieved the poor, corrected the vicious, and forgave an enemy; by which he at once remitted the strongest provocations, and exercised the most ardent charity.
It is hard not to feel admiration and affection for a man capable of such a gesture, and Johnson certainly did feel both for him. He is praised especially for his good heart, keen intelligence, fine if modest poetic gift (Johnson is, as ever, an honest judge), and eloquent conversation. Yet such sentiments were not universally held, for Savage’s wayward manner of life, moral courage, and sharp wit variously earned him enemies in many quarters:
Those who thought themselves raised above him by the advantages of riches hated him because they found no protection from the petulance of his wit. Those who were esteemed for their writings feared him as a critic, and maligned him as a rival; and almost all the smaller wits were his professed enemies.
Johnson doesn’t overlook his friend’s faults, and indeed part of the appeal of this biography is the combination of frank criticism and tender affection with which the biographer views his subject. Savage was a complex man, and his biographer is a match. It is precisely the manner in which he tempers justice with mercy that makes Johnson such a superb chronicler of a difficult life:
Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty; nor will any wise man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”
One interested in reading some of Savage’s poetry might follow the link above to his poem “The Wanderer”, or, for a shorter example, to “The Bastard”, a witty, autobiographical ode to his ruthless mother:
O Mother, yet no Mother!—’tis to you,
My Thanks for such distinguish’d Claims are due.
The Life of Savage was written in 1744, one year after Savage’s death, and was later collected in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.
In closing, here are several jewels of Johnsonian moral judgment and observation gleaned from these pages:
[Power and resentment]
Power and resentment are seldom strangers.
[Gratitude and resentment]
Those who had before paid their court to him without success soon returned the contempt which they had suffered; and they who had received favours from him, for of such favours as he could bestow he was very liberal, did not always remember them. So much more certain are the effects of resentment than of gratitude. It is not only to many more pleasing to recollect those faults which place others below them, than those virtues by which they are themselves comparatively depressed: but it is likewise more easy to neglect than to recompense. And though there are few who will practise a laborious virtue, there will never be wanting multitudes that will indulge in easy vice.
[Judgement and flattery]
He contented himself with the applause of men of judgment, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.
[Virtue, in love and in life]
The reigning error of his life was that he mistook the love for the practice of virtue, and was indeed not so much a good man as the friend of goodness.
[Judging degrees of understanding]
As many more can discover that a man is richer than that he is wiser than themselves, superiority of understanding is not so readily acknowledged as that of fortune.