1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Savage

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 5:199-204.



This unfortunate genius is commonly reputed to have been the illegitimate son of an English peeress. The facts connected with his birth are thus stated: The countess of Macclesfield, a woman of a violent temper and dissolute habits, having quarreled with the earl, her husband, resolved to be divorced from him, and with this view declared that the child with which she was then pregnant was the offspring of adulterous intercourse with the earl of Rivers. The earl of Macclesfield obtained an act of parliament for the dissolution of his marriage, and the children of his countess were declared illegitimate. Meanwhile the countess was delivered of a son, the subject of this memoir, on the 10th of January, 1698; and the earl of Rivers so far at least countenanced the profligate mother as to stand godfather to the child at his baptism, and give him his own name.

The unfortunate infant was, however, immediately committed to the care of a poor woman, who was directed to educate him as her own son, and who appears to have kept her trust in this respect with remarkable fidelity: as the youth did not discover his parentage until after his nurse's death, when the facts connected with his birth were revealed to him by some letters and papers which he discovered among the effects of his foster-parent. Savage was placed at a grammar-school near St Alban's for his education. While at this school, Earl Rivers, his reputed father, died. "He had frequently inquired for his son," says Dr. Johnson, "and had always been amused with evasive answers. On his death-bed, however, he thought it his duty to provide for him, and therefore demanded a positive account with an importunity not to be diverted or denied." His mother, the same authority informs us, though no longer able to withhold an answer, "determined at least to give such as should cut him off for ever from that happiness which competence affords, and therefore declared that he was dead." Mr. Galt, in his recent Lives of the Players, has thrown some discredit on this sad tale, and we are willing that, bad as the infamous countess undoubtedly was, she should at least have the advantage of Mr. Galt's ingenious advocacy. "I would rather," says he, "believe that Dr. Johnson was in error, than that Nature went so far wrong. There is no shadow of evidence to show that Mrs. Brett — as the alleged mother of Savage was now called, in consequence of a second marriage with Colonel Brett, who became a patentee of Drury-lane theatre — was in personal communication with Earl Rivers. But, granted that she had told him, or wrote to him, that their son was dead, might it not have been the case? for, as I shall have occasion to show, besides the fact relative to Mrs. Lloyd's legacy already noticed, the identity of the countess of Macclesfield's son, and Savage, the poet and player, is by no means satisfactorily established. Be it also observed, that Earl Rivers could not but know, in the long course of more than ten years, in which the child was under the direction of his grandmother, Lady Mason, that she was the proper person to ask concerning him. But to suppose that, in so long a period, Earl Rivers, who had no objection to acknowledge the child — who was the child's godfather — never once inquired after him, is to accuse human nature, in his lordship, of as great an exception to its customs, as in the case of the mother: probability revolts at the supposition. Perhaps Lady Mason might have been by this time dead; but, as I have shown, there was no special concealment, at least from Lord Rivers, of the existence of the child, so long as he lived; nor was it likely, when the part which Mrs. Lloyd acted towards him is considered, that there could have been any difficulty, so long as she was alive, of tracing him. Dr. Johnson assumes that the wickedness of the mother, in this instance, was true: he even goes so far as to imply that Lord Rivers 'had, in his will, bequeathed to Savage six thousand pounds; but that, on receiving the account of his death, he altered the will, and bestowed the legacy on another person.' I think the fact of the case is, that the son of Earl Rivers and Lady Macclesfield was, at this time, really dead; and this opinion is strengthened by the over-endeavour of Savage to exaggerate her unnatural enmity. If she had been his mother, there was on his part as great a deficiency of natural feeling towards her, as there was on her part towards him. Truly, if we consider the number of years during which Lord Rivers, his father and godfather, never inquired after him, and the reciprocal conduct of the mother and the son, they must have been three of the most extraordinary personages ever described, for deficiency of natural affection. This interception of the provision which Lord Rivers intended to make, is rendered still more improbable by what Dr. Johnson, on the authority of Savage, immediately after states, viz. that his mother 'endeavoured to rid herself from the danger of being at any time made known to him, by sending him secretly to the American plantations.' Now be it remembered, that his mother became afterwards the wife of the patentee of the very theatre which Savage most frequented. 'By whose kindness this scheme of kidnapping was counteracted, or by what interposition Mrs. Brett was induced to lay aside her design, I know not. It is not improbable that the Lady Mason might persuade or compel her to desist, or perhaps she could not easily find accomplices wicked enough to concur in such an action.' After stating this, Dr. Johnson makes the following observations, the justice or common sense of which is by no means apparent — 'It may be conceived,' says he, 'that those who had, by a long gradation of guilt, hardened their hearts against the sense of common wickedness, would yet be shocked at the design of a mother to expose her son to slavery and want — to expose him without interest and without provocation; and Savage might, on this occasion, find protectors and advocates among those who had long traded in crimes, and whom compassion had never touched before.' Without more particularly adverting to the improbability altogether of kidnapping the boy for Virginia, I would only remark on the plain nonsense of Dr. Johnson's observations. Was it at all necessary to such a kidnapping scheme, that the mother should disclose to the agents her relationship to the boy they were to convey out of the country in so surreptitious a manner? and if they previously knew the relationship, and were creatures capable of executing such an unnatural machination, would they have scrupled to get this rich lady so effectually into their power as they would have done, either by executing her scheme, or by seemingly conniving at it, by taking her son into their own charge? If they did not know of the connexion, what comes of the Doctor's moral revulsion of the kidnappers? This part of the story, which rests on Savage's authority alone — and Savage was never respected by his contemporaries for his probity — I have no hesitation in at once rejecting, as in its conception an extravagant monstrosity; for the mother in all this period seems to have left the management of the child entirely to her own mother, Lady Mason, and no cause nor motive had occurred to move her to intercept the intended legacy, far less to instigate her to the wickedness of sending her son to slavery in Virginia. Dr. Johnson, in the same frame of insatiable credulity, continues — 'Being hindered, by whatever means, of banishing him into another country, she formed soon after a scheme for burying him in poverty and obscurity in his own; and that his station in life, if not the place of his residence, might keep him for ever at a distance from her — (and yet she was the wife of a patentee of the theatre) — she ordered him to be placed with a shoemaker in Holborn, that after the usual time of trial he might become his apprentice.' The good Doctor, in the simplicity of his heart, states this on the authority of Savage himself. Now, mark how loosely this tale hangs together. In the first place, it supposes the mother all this time to be spontaneously actuated by something like a demoniacal virulence against her son, although it is manifest that Lady Mason was the agent in all that related to the child by Lord Rivers. Now, was Lady Mason dead when this project of the apprenticeship was hatched? It is not so said. Then who was the agent to negotiate with the shoemaker? Did that agent know of the relationship of the child? Was the shoemaker so incurious as to take no step to ascertain who were the connexions of this mysterious apprentice? Was no money to be paid to the shoemaker? The story — though it be true, in fact, that Savage was an apprentice to a shoemaker in Holborn — appears utterly improbable in the alleged anterior machination. If Lady Mason had been able, she would of course, from her previous part in the plot, have been the negotiator, through the nurse, as whose son the bastard passed; and here again the character of Lady Mason comes to be considered. Has it ever been blemished in all this business? and she was, at least, known to the nurse, if the nurse did not know who were the parents of the child. But observe what follows. While Savage is apprentice to the shoemaker, the nurse, who had always treated him as her own son, dies, and Savage, as her son, proceeds to 'take care of those few effects which by her death were, as he imagined, become his own.' Now had this old woman no relations who knew that the child had been placed with her? none to interfere, as people in their condition of life were likely to do, that he should have been permitted to take possession of her effects? Mark also; in taking possession of her effects, Dr. Johnson says, 'that he opened her boxes and examined her papers, among which he found some letters written to her by the Lady Mason, which informed him of his birth, and the reasons for which it was concealed.' This is curious. Is it probable that Lady Mason would have committed herself by writing any such letters to the old woman, had there existed such a wish for concealment as it is attempted to make us believe? That there may have been letters from Lady Mason, which suggested the idea of inquiring to whom they related; and that Savage, by inquiry, might have ascertained they concerned the child of Lady Macclesfield and Lord Rivers, which had been placed while an infant with his mother, the nurse, is highly probable; and from the character of his mind, it is not at all unlikely that he should have either imagined himself to be that child, or fancied that, with the evidence, he might pass himself off as such. My opinion is that the latter was the case, and that the poet and player, Richard Savage, was, in his capacity of Lady Macclesfield's son, an impostor. A remarkable gleam of light is thrown upon the probability of this notion by a circumstance hitherto unnoticed. The famous trial of the Annesley family began about this time, and it is curious in how many points the abduction of the heir of that family resembles the pretended machinations of which Savage gives an account of his being himself, both in what was done and intended, the object. When Savage had examined the papers found in the box of his nurse, or mother as I am disposed to think she really was, he remained no longer satisfied with his employment as a shoemaker, but resolved to share the affluence of the lady he was determined to consider as his mother; and accordingly, without scruple, he made use of every art to awaken her tenderness and attract her regard. It is singular enough, however, that this was done through the medium of letters; the natural course would have been, had there been no consciousness of deception, to have gone to her at once in person, for he had no reason at that time to think, though she might desire that her child should remain unknown, that she would reject him in the manner she did. Dr. Johnson says, that 'neither his letters, nor the interposition of those friends which his merit or his distress procured him, made any impression upon her mind. She still resolved to neglect, though she could no longer disown him.' Now this is not correct; for she did acknowledge that she had had a child, but which was dead, and she did deny that Savage was her son. In fact, being persuaded that he was an impostor, all the extraordinary antipathy with which she regarded him is explained, by the simple circumstance of her believing that her own child was dead, and the natural mortification that she could not but suffer at the revival, after the lapse of so many years, of her dishonour and public degradation."

Whether or not Savage was the real issue of the woman whom he now called mother, he at least failed to obtain a parent's recognition from her, and was necessitated to look for such means of support as he could himself command. The Bangorian controversy was at this period agitating the whole literary world, and into this controversy Savage, though very unfit for polemical controversy, rushed with headlong precipitancy, by publishing a poem against the bishop. The attempt was a failure, as might have been anticipated from his youth and inexperience. Undismayed, however, by the result, he next directed his attention to the drama, and produced a piece entitled, Woman's a Riddle. It met with little success, but served to introduce him to the notice of Sir Richard Steele, the critic, and Mr. Wilks, the actor. The former patronized him warmly, and even offered him the hand of his natural daughter; the latter succeeded in obtaining some pecuniary relief for him from his reputed mother, and also favourably introduced him to the celebrated and generous Mrs. Oldfield, who was so taken with his story that she conferred on him a pension of fifty pounds per annum during her life.

In 1724 Savage attempted a tragedy on the story of Sir Thomas Overbury. Aaron Hill wrote the prologue and epilogue for this piece, and the author himself made his first appearance on the stage in it, in the character of Sir Thomas. The piece partially succeeded, and Savage was gradually emerging from his obscurity and poverty, when both his reputation and life were placed in peril by the fatal consequence of a midnight brawl in which he and some of his dissolute companions were concerned, and in which a man was killed. Savage and one of his companions stood their trial for the murder, and were found guilty; but the countess of Hertford interested herself so warmly in Savage's favour, that the culprits were admitted to bail, and afterwards pleaded the king's pardon. During his imprisonment and trial, Savage conducted himself with great firmness and propriety. It is affirmed by Dr. Johnson that his unnatural mother used every means in her power to thwart the efforts made to obtain his pardon.

Savage was next patronised by Lord Tyrconnel, who granted him a pension of 200, which, however, he soon contrived to forfeit by quarrelling with his noble friend. He then betook himself to lampooning and satirizing some people, and panegyrizing others, as a means of raising the wind. To the queen he paid his court by presenting her majesty with an annual copy of verses under the character of "The Volunteer Laureat;" his reputed mother he annoyed and drove from Bath, where she was then staying, by the publication of a poem, entitled The Bastard, containing many plain allusions to his own history; Sir Robert Walpole he first courted in some adulatory verses, and then attacked for not gratifying his inordinate expectations. Meanwhile his habits were becoming daily more dissolute, and the shifts to which he resorted more discreditable; his wit had lost its novelty, and his outrageous conduct rendered his presence burdensome to his friends. Pope and some others proposed to settle a small annual pension upon him on condition that he would retire to the country and remain there. He at first acceded to the proposal; but he soon got dissatisfied with a country life, and attempted to get back to his old haunts.

In January, 1743, he was arrested for debt in Bristol, and, six months after, died in prison. His collected works were published in two volumes octavo, with a memoir from the pen of his friend Dr. Johnson, which is acknowledged to be one of the most splendid of the whole series of lives from the pen of the biographer of the English poets.