The trope of the artist-as-outsider, revealer of truths unseen by the rest of us, is commonly used to describe the art of many popular painters. The list of those who might be classed within this group would be long, yet few can be considered to be genuinely outside of mainstream society. While many writers have openly criticised the societies in which they live, they have often done so from a cosy Establishment position, or at least maintained a basic livelihood for themselves and their families. Few have excluded themselves from the inner workings of the world in which they exist. Richard Savage (1697-1743) is a rare example of an artist who seems —given what we know of his life and his relationships— to have deliberately positioned himself outside the social conventions of his time. While he was a poet of some note, it is his life which gives his poetry much of its poignancy. Just as we may look at a painting and try to uncover significant meaning via the artist’s biography, some poetical truths can only be fully understood within that same biographical context.
What little we know of Savage comes mainly from The Life of Richard Savage written by Dr Johnson and published in February 1744, just a few months after Savage’s death in Bristol’s Newgate Prison in August 1743. The other source is an anonymous pamphlet published by a J. Roberts in 1727, between the guilty verdict in Savage’s murder trial and his subsequent pardon. This sympathetic account of his life was an obvious attempt to sway public opinion in favour of the pardon. These two publications are intrinsically linked, since Johnson used the earlier pamphlet as the sole source for his own account, and was fairly uncritical in accepting its veracity —there is little other evidence (particularly on the parentage issue) to contradict it. Savage’s birthright was to be of the utmost significance throughout his life, and in many ways it was the psychological driver for much of his finest poetry.
Savage claimed that he was the illegitimate son of the 4th Earl Rivers and the Duchess of Macclesfield. The Duchess did have two illegitimate children with the Earl, and they were both deposited with foster families, but she later claimed that they had died in early childhood. Savage spent his childhood with a Mrs Lloyd, and later claimed to have discovered documents on her death which led him to believe that he was of noble birth. Throughout his life he stalked the Duchess of Macclesfield (after her divorce known simply as Mrs Brett), watching her house at night and even entering it at one point to confront her. Indeed, he consistently disclosed information regarding his supposed birth parents to the public as often as was practicable. The Earl had died when Savage was young, and the latter always claimed that he had been denied his rightful inheritance. While there is no consensus as to the justness of his argument, the issue remains pivotal to our understanding of Savage’s unusual career and nomadic existence.
On the night of the 20th November 1727 Savage was out on the town with two companions, James Gregory and William Merchant. After a heavy bout of drinking, the group were roaming the streets after midnight, a time when most respectable establishments would have been closed. They found themselves at Robinson’s Coffee House near Charing Cross. Seeing a light in the window, they entered, and on demanding drinks were told to wait until the occupants of a large room had paid their ‘reckoning.’ Merchant became abusive and entered the room where, after he had kicked over a table, an argument ensued and a man named James Sinclair was fatally wounded by Savage’s sword. Savage then injured a maid as he made his escape, but he and the others were apprehended by some soldiers who were called to the scene, and on Thursday the 7th of December the three were arraigned for murder at the Old Bailey. Unusually, the trial lasted eight hours, but at the end Savage and Gregory were found guilty of ‘wilful murder,’ with Merchant guilty of manslaughter. The two found guilty of murder were sentenced to be hung at Tyburn, and taken to London’s Newgate Prison to await their fate.
Here the story becomes more complex, with insufficient evidence to make clear who was —and was not— responsible for the subsequent pardon. Johnson’s account is unreliable, since he seems to relate the version which Savage himself gave whenever he was asked. In this account, Savage wrote to the Duchess of Macclesfield: not only did she refuse to help, she actively sought to block the proposed pardon. It was the intervention of the Countess of Hertford, who gained the support of Queen Caroline, that eventually secured the pardon. However, it seems probable that dramatist and author Aaron Hill and Lord Tyrconnel, nephew of the Duchess of Macclesfield, were the driving forces behind the campaign. This raises the obvious question: why would a close relative of the Duchess support such a cause, when she herself was supposedly opposed to it? What happened next makes the story even more peculiar.
The role of Lord Tyrconnel is the most confusing anomaly in the life of Savage. After his trial Savage lived in Tyrconnel’s house, was awarded a pension by him of £200 a year, and was given the freedom of his host’s wine cellar. As befits the myth of the outsider poet, Savage eventually fell out with Tyrconnel and was ordered out of his house, and the pension was stopped. In Johnson’s version of Savage’s life the poet is portrayed as someone who was regarded as good company and a witty conversationalist, but who could not maintain friendly relationships and always seemed to be arguing with those who tried to help him. His failed friendship with Tyrconnel seems to confirm this opinion.
Savage first encountered Johnson soon after the latter had moved to London with his wife Tetty in the spring of 1737. Johnson initially took rooms near Button’s Coffee House close to the Strand. Button’s was very much the haunt of the Grub Street writers, and it is possible that this was where the two men first met, although both were also associated with the publisher of The Gentleman’s Magazine, Richard Cave. In any case, what happened next between them was to have a lasting effect upon the young Johnson, and coloured the whole of his later biography of the poet.
Savage at this time had no fixed address, and with Johnson’s wife Tetty apparently settled down at home, the two men took to wandering the deserted streets of London together at night. Neither man was comfortable within a domestic environment, and it is unlikely that Savage was ever invited over to Johnson’s rooms. No doubt Johnson thought of his companion as a typical outsider poet: homeless, penniless, yet able to articulate eternal truths. Given the romance of his disputed parentage, Savage could legitimately be seen as someone who had overcome the hardship of a birthright denied.
Johnson was some ten years younger than Savage, and then virtually unknown. He was about to make his way in the literary world: within a year he would publish arguably his finest poem, London (1738), a work saturated by his relationship with Savage. Various interpretations have speculated that Thales, the poem’s protagonist, is a portrait of Savage, a self-portrait of Johnson, or perhaps an amalgam of the two. Thales is the wandering poet who sees the city for what it is, a sprawling ecosystem of good and evil, where those who aspire to some kind of higher intellectual activity are worn down by their poverty. He yearns for an idyllic life in the country, and identifies Wales as the place where he can find the peace and tranquility to write his poetry. Is it a coincidence that Savage was sent to Wales when his friends decided that he needed to get away from London and its temptations?
In late 1737 or early 1738, when the two men met, Savage was almost the opposite of his new friend. Renowned for his infamous poem The Bastard, publicly known as the illegitimate son of Mrs Brett (once Duchess of Macclesfield), a convicted murderer pardoned by the Crown, Volunteer Laureate to the Queen with a yearly pension of £50, Savage was —to Johnson— the epitome of the tragic poet. The two men’s friendship had a profound effect on them both, although no documentary evidence survives to suggest what connected them, other than the enduring yet suspect trope of poverty and poetry.
After Savage had been ejected from the home of Lord Tyrconnel in 1735, his inability to maintain himself financially became more and more acute. He borrowed money from friends with no real hope or intention of repaying it, and became estranged from many of them. He did have the pension from the Queen, but when she died in September 1737 his was the only pension not renewed by the King. By the summer of 1739 the situation had become untenable, and his few remaining friends, led by Alexander Pope, organised another pension of £50 for him and suggested that he leave London and settle in Wales. Rather surprisingly he agreed, and in July, with money in his pocket, he left the city and his few remaining friends. Johnson rather poignantly wrote that Savage “parted from the author of this narrative with tears in his eyes.” As was typical of Johnson, it was not clear exactly whose eyes were full of tears, but it was a rare expression of the emotional connection that the two men shared.
As was equally typical of Savage, by the time he arrived in Bristol his money had gone. Playing the role of the notorious poet and pardoned murderer, he survived on more loans and the hospitality of those who found his company enjoyable. However, after some time spent in Wales, he returned to Bristol. In January 1743 he was arrested for a debt of £8 and incarcerated in Newgate Prison. He died there in August the same year; perhaps as a sign of his enduring ability to make friends, his gaoler paid for his funeral.
It must be admitted that few people would read Savage’s poetry were it not for the Johnson connection. Although his first collection Miscellaneous Poems (1726) went through several editions, that was partly for the curiosity value: his claim to be the illegitimate child of noble parents added interest. After his pardon, he published what might be regarded as his most accessible work, The Bastard (1728), in which he set down his grievances against his supposed mother. The poem’s preface claims that the author bears no malice towards her, but this is totally contradicted by the following lines:
O Mother, yet no Mother! ‘Tis to you, My thanks for such distinguish’d claims are due. You, enslav’d to nature’s narrow laws, Warm championess for freedom’s sacred cause, From all the dry devoirs of blood and line, From ties maternal, moral and divine, Discharg’d my grasping soul; push’d me from shore, And launch’d me into life without an oar.
Later in the poem Savage further bemoans his fate:
Where shall my hopes find rest? --- No mother’s care Shielded my infant innocence with prayer: No father’s guardian hand my youth maintain’d, Call’d forth my virtues, and from vice restrained.
The Bastard was followed by The Wanderer (1729), a disjointed and appropriately rambling work which Savage believed to be his masterpiece. It has an unusual strength of purpose and is, in many ways, strangely modern. The poem shows the clear influence of James Thomson’s epic work The Seasons, which Savage would almost certainly have read in manuscript form. The main protagonists of The Wanderer — the narrator, the Hermit, the Seraph-Beggar, and the Bard— all have strong autobiographical elements. The composite picture corresponds to Savage’s view of himself: the abandoned child of noble birth, outside of society, wandering alone through the dark nights of the uncaring city, and writing majestic, revealing poetry.
In a surviving letter from Pope dated April 1742, the year before Savage’s death, the ageing poet declares himself finished with his old friend. Pope had continued to support Savage when most had deserted him. Savage had provided much of the detail on the Grub Street authors satirised in The Dunciad, and Pope remained loyal to him for many years. However, as this last letter makes clear, Pope had finally had enough of his erring friend and his ingratitude. He begins his letter with a clear statement of intent:
“Sir, I must be sincere with you, as our correspondence is now likely to be closed. Your language is really too high...... much too extraordinary for me..... to make me obey your command.”
He continues in the same vein:
“It is with concern I find so much misconstruction joined with so much resentment, in your nature. You still injure some, whom you had known many years as friends, and for whose intentions I could take upon me to answer.”
And he concluded with this defence:
“You cannot think yet, I have injured you, or been your enemy: and I am determined to keep out of your suspicion, by not being officious any longer, or obtruding into your concerns further.”
So far as Pope is concerned their relationship is at an end. Presumably the pension which Pope had organised with some difficulty was now over, and what additional help might have been available from Savage’s former friends in London was also finished. That Savage was imprisoned the next year for a relatively small debt suggests the dire financial troubles which followed.
Richard Savage is remembered now for his association with Johnson, for poetry that almost no-one reads, and for his unconventional life. In other times he might have been called a free spirit or a romantic. However he is viewed, he remains an unresolved mystery: was he a man driven by the injustices of his upbringing, or a deluded imposter who came to believe his own lies? A poet of some ability, he inspired the young Johnson to compose his finest verse, helping him on the path to his later literary success. So perhaps it might be best to conclude with Johnson’s lines from London, which seem to be an appropriate epitaph for this enigmatic character:
Then thro’ the World a wretched Vagrant roam, For where can starving Merit find a Home? In vain your mournful Narrative disclose, Whilst all neglect, and most insult your Woes.