Misfortune and imprudence so deeply mark the life of Richard Savage, that it is painful to record even its prominent passages. This task, however, Johnson has performed with all the ardour of friendship.
Savage was born in 1698, and is reputed the son of Anne, Countess of Macclesfield, by Richard Savage, Earl of Rivers. Though his mother might love the offence, she evidently hated the witness which brought it to light; for she not only wished to sink him in poverty, and to keep him in ignorance of his origin, but when she found that impossible, she pursued him with unrelenting rancour, and intercepted the friendship of others. He was placed with a poor woman, a shoemaker's wife, who passed for his mother till her death. By some means, however, he received a grammar school education; and on discovering his parentage, he forsook the trade of a shoemaker, to which he had been apprenticed; and trying in vain to excite his mother's affection, felt the dormant powers of genius awakened within him, and sought relief from his pen. He attempted dramatic compositions, and in this he was not wholly unsuccessful; but he was one of those unhappy beings whom it is impossible to serve; for when Lord Tyrconnel, a relation of his mother, took him into his house, and treated him on terms of equality, his conduct is said to have been so inconsistent, that he was obliged to throw him again on the open world. While in this eligible situation under Lord Tyrconnel's roof, he produced The Wanderer, his largest and most celebrated poem; and after his disgrace appeared The Bastard, which, though it stung his mother, did not move her compassion, or alter her conduct.
Savage was now frequently destitute of bread and of lodging. It is mentioned, that Johnson and he have occasionally walked the streets all night, because they could not pay for a bed. At last, his friends raised a small subscription, on the produce of which he was to retire, and live in Wales. But he offended or neglected those who were most zealous to serve him, and finally died in Bristol jail, in 1743, in the 46th year of his age.
Of his character, says Johnson, the most striking peculiarities have been displayed in the relation of his life. He was undoubtedly a man of excellent parts; and had he received the advantage of a liberal education, and had his natural talents been cultivated to the best advantage, he might have made a respectable figure in life. He was happy in an agreeable temper and a lively flow of wit, which made his company much coveted: nor was his judgment both of writings and of men inferior to his wit; but he was too much a slave to his passions, and his passions were too easily excited.
He was warm in his friendships, bat implacable in his enmity; and his greatest fault, which is indeed the greatest of all faults, was ingratitude. Vanity, the most innocent species of pride, was most frequently predominant; and his veracity was often questioned, and not without reason.
As an author, if one piece, which he had resolved to suppress, be excepted, Savage has very little to fear from the strictest moral or religious censure. And though he may not be altogether secure against the objections of the critic, it must however be acknowledged, that his works are the production of a genius truly poetical, and what many writers, who have been more lavishly applauded, cannot boast, that they have an original air which has no resemblance of any foregoing writer; that the versification and sentiments have a cast peculiar to themselves, which no man can imitate with success because, what was nature in Savage, would be in another affectation.