This unhappy gentleman, who led a course of life imbittered with the most severe calamities was not yet destitute of a friend to close his eyes. It has been remarked of Cowley, who likewise experienced many of the vicisitudes of fortune, that he was happy in the acquaintance of the bishop of Rochester, who performed the last offices which can be paid to a poet, in the elegant Memorial he made of his Life. Though Mr. Savage was as much inferior to Cowley in genius, as in the rectitude of his life, yet, in some respect, he bears a resemblance to that great man. None of the poets have been more honoured in the commemoration of their history, than this gentleman. The life of Mr. Savage was written some years after his death by a gentleman, who knew him intimately, capable to distinguish between his follies, and those good qualities which were often concealed from the bulk of mankind by the abjectness of his condition. From this account we have compiled that which we now present to the reader.
In the year 1697 Anne countess of Macclesfield, having lived for some time on very uneasy terms with her husband, thought a public confession of adultery the most expeditious method of obtaining her liberty, and therefore declared the child with which be then was big was begotten by the earl of Rivers. This circumstance soon produced a separation, which, while the earl of Macclesfield was prosecuting, the countess, on the 10th of January 1697-8, was delivered of our author; and the earl of Rivers, by appearing to consider him as his own, left no room to doubt of her declaration. However strange it may appear, the countess looked upon her son, from his birth, with a kind of resentment and abhorrence. No sooner was her son born, than she discovered a resolution of disowning him, in a short time removed him from her sight, and committed him to the care of a poor woman, whom she directed to educate him as her own, and enjoined her never to inform him of his true parents. Instead of defending his tender years, she took delight to see him struggling with misery, and continued her persecution, from the first hour of his life to the last, with an implacable and restless cruelty. His mother, indeed, could not affect others with the same barbarity, and though she, whose tender solicitudes should have supported him, had launched him into the ocean of life, yet was he not wholly abandoned. The lady Mason, mother to the countess, undertook to transact with the nurse, and superintend the education of the child. She placed him at a grammar school near St. Albans, where he was called by the name of his nurse, without the least intimation that he had a claim to any other. White he was at this school, his father, the earl of Rivers, was seized with a distemper which in a short time put an end to his life. While the earl lay on his deathbed, he thought it his duty to provide for him, amongst his other natural children, and therefore demanded a positive account of him. His mother, who could no longer refuse an answer, determined, at least, to give Such, as should deprive him for ever of that happiness which competency affords, and declared him dead; which is, perhaps, the first instance of a falshood invented by a mother, to deprive her son of a provision which was designed him by another. The earl did not imagine that there could exist in nature, a mother that would ruin her son without enriching herself, and therefore bestowed upon another son six thousand pounds, which he had before in his will bequeathed to Savage. The same cruelty which incited her to intercept this provision intended him, suggested another project, worthy of such a disposition. She endeavoured to rid herself from the danger of being at any time made known to him, by sending him secretly to the American Plantations; but in this contrivance her malice was defeated.
Being still restless in the persecution of her son, she formed another scheme of burying him in poverty and obscurity; and, that the state of his life, if not the place of his residence, might keep him for ever at a distance from her, the ordered him to be placed with a Shoemaker in Holbourn, that after the usual time of trial he might become his apprentice. It is generally reported, that this project was, for some time, successful, and that Savage was employed at the awl longer than he was willing to confess; but an unexpected discovery determined him to quit his occupation.
About this time his nurse, who had always treated him as her own son, died; and it was natural for him to take care of those effects, which by her death were, as he imagined, become his own. He therefore went to her house, opened her boxes, examined her papers, and found some letters written to her by the lady Mason, which informed him of his birth, and the reasons for which it was concealed.
He was now no longer satisfied with the employment which had been allotted him, but thought he had a right to share the affluence of his mother, and therefore, without scruple, applied to her as her son, and made use of every art to awake her tenderness, and attract her regard. It was to no purpose that he frequently sollicited her to admit him to see her, the avoided him with the utmost precaution, and ordered him to be excluded from her house, by whomsoever he might be introduced, and what reason soever he might give for entering it.
Savage was at this time so touched with the discover of his real mother, that it was his frequent practice to walk in the dark evenings for several hours before her door, in hopes of seeing her by accident.
But all his assiduity was without effect, for he could neither soften her heart, nor open her hand, and while he was endeavouring to rouse the affections of a mother, he was reduced to the miseries of want. In this situation he was obliged to find other means of support, and became by necessity an author.
His first attempt in that province was, a poem against the bishop of Bangor, whose controversy, at that time, engaged the attention of the nation, and furnished the curious with a topic of dispute. Of this performance Mr. Savage was afterwards ashamed, as it was the crude effort of a yet uncultivated genius. He then attempted another kind of writing, and, while but yet eighteen, offered a comedy to the stage, built upon a Spanish plot; which was refused by the players. Upon this he gave it to Mr. Bullock, who, at that time rented the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields of Mr. Rich, and with messieurs Keene, Pack, and others undertook the direction thereof. Mr. Bullock made some slight alterations, and brought it upon the stage, under the title of Woman's a Riddle, but allowed the real author no part of the profit. This occasioned a quarrel between Savage and Bullock; but it ended without bloodshed, though not without high words: Bullock insisted he had a translation of the Spanish play, from whence the plot was taken, given him by the same lady who had bestowed it on Savage. — Which was not improbable, as that whimsical lady had given a copy to several others.
Not discouraged, however, at this repulse, he wrote, two years after, Love in a Veil, another Comedy borrowed likewise from the Spanish, but with little better success than before; for though it was received and acted, yet it appeared to late in the year, that Savage obtained no other advantage from it, than the acquaintance of Sir Richard Steele, and Mr. Wilks, by whom, says the author of his Life, he was pitied, caressed, and relieved. Sir Richard Steele declared in his favour, with that genuine benevolence which constituted his character, promoted his interest with the utmost zeal, and taking all opportunities of recommending him; he asserted, that the inhumanity of his mother had given him a right to find every good man his father. Nor was Mr. Savage admitted into his acquaintance only, but to his confidence and esteem. Sir Richard intended to have established him in some settled scheme of life, and to have contracted a kind of alliance with him, by marrying him to a natural daughter, on whom he intended to bestow a thousand pounds. But Sir Richard conducted his affairs with so little oeconomy, that he was seldom able to raise the sum, which he had offered, and the marriage was consequently delayed. In the mean time he was officiously informed that Mr. Savage had ridiculed him; by which he was so much exasperated that he withdrew the allowance he had paid him, and never afterwards admitted him to his house.
He was now again abandoned to fortune, without any other friend but Mr. Wilks, a man to whom calamity seldom complained without relief. He naturally took an unfortunate wit into his protection, and not only assisted him in any casual distresses, but continued an equal and steady kindness to the time of his death. By Mr. Wilks's interposition Mr. Savage once obtained of his mother fifty pounds, and a promise of one hundred and fifty more, but it was the fate of this unhappy man, that few promises of any advantage to him were ever performed.
Being thus obliged to depended upon Mr. Wilks, he was an assiduous frequenter of the theatres, and, in a short time, the amusements of the stage took such a possession of his mind, that he was never absent from a play ill several years.
In the year 1723 Mr. Savage brought another piece on the stage. He made choice of the subject of Sir Thomas Overbury: If the circumstances in which he wrote it be considered, it will afford at once an uncommon proof of strength of genius, and an evenness of mind not to be ruffled. During a considerable part of the time in which be was employed upon this performance, he was without lodging, and often without food nor had he any other conveniencies for study than the fields, or the street; in which he used to walk, and form his speeches, and afterwards step into a shop, beg for a few moments the use of pen and ink, and write down what he had composed, upon paper which he had picked up by accident.
Mr. Savage had been for some time distinguished by Aaron Hill, Esq; with very particular kindness; and on this occasion it was natural to apply to him, as an author of established reputation. He therefore sent this Tragedy to him, with a few verses, in which he desired his correction. Mr. Hill who was a man of unbounded humanity, and most accomplished politeness, readily complied with his request; and wrote the prologue and epilogue, in which he touches the circumstances of the author with great tenderness.
Mr. Savage at last brought his play upon the stage, but not till the chief actors had quitted it, and it was represented by what was then called the summer-company. In this Tragedy Mr. Savage himself performed the part of Sir Thomas Overbury, with so little success, that he always blotted out his name from the list of players, when a copy of his Tragedy was to be shewn to any of his friends. This play however procured him the notice and esteem of many persons of distinction, for some rays of genius glimmered thro' all the mists which poverty and oppression had spread over it. The whole profits of this performance, acted, printed, and dedicated, amounted to about £200. But the generosity of Mr. Hill did not end here; he promoted the subscription to his Miscellanies, by a very pathetic representation of the authors sufferings, printed in the Plain-Dealer, a periodical paper written by Mr. Hill. This generous effort in his favour soon produced him seventy-guineas, which were left for him at Button's, by some who commiserated his misfortunes.
Mr. Hill not only promoted the subscription to the Miscellany, but furnished likewise the greatest part of the poems of which it is composed, and particularly the Happy Man, which he published as a specimen. To this Miscellany he wrote a preface, in which he gives an account of his mother's cruelty, in a very uncommon strain of humour, which the success of his subscriptions probably inspired.
Savage was now advancing in reputation, and though frequently involved in very perplexing necessities, appeared however to be gaining on mankind; when both his fame and his life were endangered, by an event of which it is not yet determined, whether it ought to be mentioned as a crime or a calamity. As this is by far the most interesting circumstance in the life of this unfortunate man, we shall relate the particulars minutely.
On the 20th of November 1727 Mr. Savage came from Richmond, where he had retired, that he might pursue his studies with less interruption, with an intent to discharge a lodging which he had in Westminster; and accidentally, meeting two gentlemen of his acquaintance, whose names were Marchant and Gregory, he went in with them to a neighbouring Coffee-House, and sat drinking till it was late. He would willingly have gone to bed in the same house, but there was not room for the whole company, and therefore they agreed to ramble about the streets, and divert themselves with such amusements as should occur till morning. In their walk they happened unluckily to discover light in Robinson's Coffee-House, near Charing-Cross, and went in. Marchant with some rudeness demanded a room, and was told that there was a good fire in the next parlour, which the company were about to leave, being then paying their reckoning. Marchant not satisfied with this answer, rushed into the room, and was followed by his companions. He then petulantly placed himself between the company and the fire; and soon afterwards kicked down the table. This produced a quarrel, swords were drawn on both sides and one Mr. James Sinclair was killed. Savage having wounded likewise a maid that held him, forced his way with Gregory out of the house; but being intimidated, and confus'd, without resolution, whether to fly or stay, they were taken in a back court by one of the company, and some soldiers, whom he had called to his assistance.
When the day of the trial came on, the court was crowded in a very unusual manner, and the public appeared to interest itself as in a cause of general concern. The witnesses against Mr. Savage and his friends, were the woman who kept the house, which was a house of ill-fame, and her maid, the men who were in the room with Mr. Sinclair, and a woman of the town, who had been drinking with them, and with whom one of them had been seen in bed.
They swore in general, that Marchant gave the provocation, which Savage and Gregory drew their swords to justify; that Savage drew first, that he stabb'd Sinclair, when he was not in a posture of defence, or while Gregory commanded his sword; that after he had given the thrust he turned pale, and would have retired, but that the maid clung round him, and one of the company endeavoured to detain him, from whom he broke, by cutting the maid on the head.
Sinclair had declared several times before his death, for he survived that night, that he received his wound from Savage; nor did Savage at his trial deny the fact, but endeavoured partly to extenuate it, by urging the suddenness of the whole action, and the impossibility of any ill design, or premeditated malice, and partly to justify it by the necessity of self-defence, and the hazard of his own life, if he had lost that opportunity of giving the thrust. He observed that neither reason nor law obliged a man to wait for the blow which was threatened, and which if he should suffer, he might never be able to return; that it was always allowable to prevent an assault, and to preserve life, by taking away that of the adversary, by whom it was endangered.
With regard to the violence with which he endeavoured his escape, he declared it was not his design to fly from justice, or decline a trial, but to avoid the expences and severities of a prison, and that he intended to appear at the bar, without compulsion. This defence which took up more than an hour, was heard by the multitude that thronged the court, with the most attentive and respectful silence. Those who thought he ought not to be acquitted, owned that applause could not be refused him; and those who before pitied his misfortunes, now reverenced his abilities.
The witnesses who appeared against him were proved to be persons of such characters as did not entitle them to much credit; a common strumpet, a woman by whom such wretches were entertained, and a man by whom they were supported. The character of Savage was by several persons of distinction asserted to be that of a modest inoffensive man, not inclined to broils, or to insolence, and who had to that time been only known by his misfortunes and his wit.
Had his audience been his judges, he had undoubtedly been acquitted; but Mr. Page, who was then upon the bench, treated him with the most brutal severity, and in summing up the evidence endeavoured to exasperate the jury against him, and misrepresent his defence. This was a provocation, and an insult, is which the prisoner could not bear, and therefore Mr. Savage resolutely asserted, that his cause was not candidly explained, and began to recapitulate what he had before said; but the judge having ordered him to be silent, which Savage treated with contempt, he commanded that he should be taken by force from the bar. The jury then heard the opinion of the judge, that good characters were of no weight against positive evidence, though they might turn the scale, where it was doubtful; and that though two men attack each other, the death of either is only manslaughter; but where one is the aggressor, as in the case before them, and in pursuance of his first attack kills the other, the law supposes the action, however sudden, to be malicious. The jury determined, that Mr. Savage and Mr. Gregory were guilty of murder, and Mr. Marchant who had no sword, only manslaughter.
Mr. Savage and Mr. Gregory were conducted back to prison, where they were more closely confined, and loaded with irons of fifty pound weight. Savage had now no hopes of life but front the king's mercy, and can it be believed, that mercy his own mother endeavoured to intercept.
When Savage (as we have already observed) was first made acquainted with the story of his birth, he was so touched with tenderness for his mother, that he earnestly sought an opportunity to see her.
To prejudice the queen against him, she made use of an incident, which was omitted in the order of time, that it might be mentioned together with the purpose it was made to serve.
One evening while he was walking, as was his custom, in the street she inhabited, he saw the door of her house by accident open; he entered it, and finding no persons in the passage to prevent him, went op stairs to salute her. She discovered him before he could enter her chamber, alarmed the family with the most distressful out-cries, and when file had by her screams gathered them about her, ordered them to drive out of the house that villain, who had forced himself in upon her, and endeavoured to murder her.
This abominable falsehood his mother represented to the queen, or communicated it to some who were base enough to relate it, and so strongly prepossessed her majesty against this unhappy man, that for a long while she rejected all petitions that were offered in his favour.
Thus had Savage perished by the evidence of a bawd, of a strumpet and of his mother; had not justice and compassion procured him an advocate, of a rank too great to be rejected unheard, and of virtue too eminent to be heard without being believed. The story of his sufferings reached the ear of the countess of Hertford, who engaged in his support with the tenderness and humanity peculiar to that amiable lady. She demanded an audience of the queen, and laid before her the whole series of his mother's cruelty, exposed the improbability of her accusation of murder, and pointed out all the circumstances of her unequall'd barbarity.
The interposition of this lady was so successful, that he was soon after admitted to bail, and on the 9th of March 1728, pleaded the king's pardon.
Mr. Savage during his imprisonment, his trial, and the time in which he lay under sentence of death, behaved with great fortitude, and confirmed by his unshaken equality of mind, the esteem of those who before admired him for his abilities. Upon weighing all the circumstances relating to this unfortunate event, it plainly appears that the greatest guilt could not be imputed to Savage. His killing Sinclair, was rather rash than totally dishonourable, for though Marchant had been the aggressor, who would not procure his friend from being over-powered by numbers?
Some time after he had obtained his liberty, he met in the street the woman of the town that had swore against him: She informed him that she was in distress, and with unparalleled assurance desired him to relieve her. He, instead of insulting her misery, and taking pleasure in the calamity of one who had brought his life into danger, reproved her gently for her perjury, and changing the only guinea he had, divided it equally between her and himself.
Compassion seems indeed to have been among the few good qualities possessed by Savage; he never appeared inclined to take the advantage of weakness, to attack the defenceless, or to press upon the falling: Whoever was distressed was certain at last of his good wishes. But when his heart was not softened by the sight of misery, he was obstinate in his resentment, and did not quickly lose the remembrance of an injury. He always harboured the sharpest resentment against judge Page; and a short time before his death, he gratified it in a satire upon that severe magistrate.
When in conversation this unhappy subject was mentioned, Savage appeared neither to consider himself as a murderer, nor as a man wholly free from blood. How much, and how long he regretted it, appeared in a poem published many years afterwards, which the following lines will set in a very striking light.
Is chance a guilt, that my disast'rous heart,
For mischief never meant, must ever smart?
Can self-defence be sin? — Ah! plead no more!
What tho' no purpos'd malice stain'd thee o'er;
Had Heav'n befriended thy unhappy side,
Thou had'st not been provok'd, or thou had'st died.
Far be the guilt of home-shed blood from all,
On whom, unsought, imbroiling dangers fall.
Still the pale dead revives and lives to me,
To me through pity's eye condemn'd to see.
Remembrance veils his rage, but swells his fate,
Griev'd I forgive, and am grown cool too late,
Young and unthoughtful then, who knows one day,
What rip'ning virtues might have made their way?
He might, perhaps, his country's friend have prov'd,
Been gen'rous, happy, candid and belov'd;
He might have sav'd some worth now doom'd to fall,
And I, perchance, in him have murder'd all.
Savage had now obtained his liberty, but was without any settled means of support, and as he had lost all tenderness for his mother, who had thirsted for his blood, he resolved to lampoon her, to extort that pension by satire, which he knew she would never grant upon any principles of honour, or humanity. This expedient proved successful; whether shame still survived, though compassion was extinct, or whether her relations had more delicacy than herself, and imagined that some of the darts which satire might point at her, would glance upon them: Lord Tyrconnel, whatever were his motives, upon his promise to lay aside the design of exposing his mother, received him into his family, treated him as his equal, and engaged to allow him a pension of £200 a year.
This was the golden part of Mr. Savage's life; for some time he had no reason to complain of fortune; his appearance was splendid, his expences large, and his acquaintance extensive. He was courted, says the author of his life, by all who endeavoured to be thought men of genius, and caressed by all that valued themselves upon a fine taste. To admire Mr. Savage was a proof of discernment, and to be acquainted with him was a title to poetical reputation. His presence was sufficient to make any place of entertainment popular; and his approbation and example constituted the fashion. So powerful is genius, when it is levelled with the glitter of affluence. Men willingly pay to fortune that regard which they owe to merit, and are pleased when they have at once an opportunity of exercising their vanity, and practising their duty. This interval of prosperity furnished him with opportunities of enlarging his knowledge of human nature, by contemplating life from its highest gradation to its lowest.
In this gay period of life, when he was surrounded by the affluence of pleasure, 1729, he published the Wanderer, a Moral Poem, of which the design is comprised in these lines.
I fly all public care, all venal strife,
To try the Still, compared with Active Life.
To prove by these the sons of men may owe,
The fruits of bliss to bursting clouds of woe,
That ev'n calamity by thought refin'd
Inspirits, and adorns the thinking mind.
And more distinctly in the following passage:
By woe the soul to daring actions swells,
By woe in plaintless patience it excells;
From patience prudent, clear experience springs,
And traces knowledge through the course of things.
Thence hope is form'd, thence fortitude, success,
Renown — Whate'er men covet or caress.
This performance was always considered by Mr. Savage as his master-piece; but Mr. Pope, when he asked his opinion of it, told him, that he read it once over, and was not displeased with it, that it gave him more pleasure at the second perusal, and delighted him still more at the third. From a poem so successfully written, it might be reasonably expected that he should have gained considerable advantages; but the case was otherwise; he sold the copy only for ten guineas. That he got so small a price for so finished a poem, was not to be imputed either to the necessity of the writer, or to the avarice of the bookseller. He was a slave to his passions, and being then in the pursuit of some trifling gratification, for which he wanted a supply of money, he sold his poem to the first bidder, and perhaps for the first price which was proposed, and probably would have been content with less, if less had been offered. It was addressed to the earl of Tyrconnel, not only in the first lines, but in a formal dedication, filled with the highest strains of panegyric. These praises in a short time he found himself inclined to retract, being discarded by the man on whom he had bestowed them, and whom he said, he then discovered, had not deserved them.
Of this quarrel, lord Tyrconnel and Mr. Savage assigned very different reasons. Lord Tyrconnel charged Savage with the most licentious behaviour, introducing company into his house, and practising with them the most irregular frolics, and committing all the outrages of drunkenness. Lord Tyrconnel farther alledged against Savage, that the books of which he himself had made him a present, were sold or pawned by him, so that he had often the mortification to see them exposed to sale upon stalls.
Savage, it seems, was so accustomed to live by expedients, that affluence could not raise him above them. He often went to the tavern and trusted the payment of his reckoning to the liberality of his company; and frequently of company to whom he was very little known. This conduct indeed, seldom drew him into much inconvenience, or his conversation and address were so pleasing, that few thought the pleasure which they received from him, dearly purchased by paying for his wine. It was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger, whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added, that he had not often a friend long, without obliging him to become an enemy.
Mr. Savage on the other hand declared, that lord Tyrconnel quarrelled with him because he would not subtract from his own luxury and extravagance what he had promised to allow him; and that his resentment was only a plea for the violation of his promise: He asserted that he had done nothing which ought to exclude him from that subsistence which he thought not so much a favour as a debt, since it was offered him upon conditions, which he had never broken; and that his only fault was, that he could not be supported upon nothing.
Savage's passions were strong, among which his resentment was not the weakest; and as gratitude was not his constant virtue, we ought not too hastily to give credit to all his prejudice asserts against (his once praised patron) lord Tyrconnel.
During his continuance with the lord Tyrconnel, he wrote the Triumph of Health and Mirth, on the recovery of the lady Tyrconnel, from a languishing illness. This poem is built upon a beautiful fiction. Mirth overwhelmed with sickness for the death of a favourite, takes a flight in quest of her sister Health, whom the finds reclined upon the brow of a lofty mountain, amidst the fragrance of a perpetual spring, and the breezes of the morning sporting about her. Being solicited by her sister Mirth, she readily promises her assistance, flies away in a cloud, and impregnates the waters of Bath with new virtues, by which the sickness of Belinda is relieved.
While Mr. Savage continued in high life, he did not let slip any opportunity to examine whether the merit of the great is magnified or diminished by the medium through which it is contemplated, and whether great men were selected for high stations, or high stations made great men. The result of his observations is not much to the advantage of those in power.
But the golden aera of Savage's life was now at an end, he was banished the table of lord Tyrconnel, and turned again a-drift upon the world. While he was in prosperity, he did not behave with a moderation likely to procure friends amongst his inferiors. He took an opportunity in the sun-shine of his fortune, to revenge himself of those creatures, who, as they are the worshippers of power, made court to him, whom they had before contemptuously treated. This assuming behaviour of Savage was not altogether unnatural. He had been avoided and despised by those despicable sycophants, who were proud of his acquaintance when railed to eminence. In this case, who would not spurn such mean Beings? His degradation therefore from the condition which he had enjoyed with so much superiority, was considered by many as an occasion of triumph. Those who had courted him without success, had an opportunity to return the contempt they had suffered.
Mean time, Savage was very diligent in exposing the faults of lord Tyrconnel, over whom he obtained at least this advantage, that he drove him first to the practice of outrage and violence; for he was so much provoked by his wit and virulence, that h came with a number of attendants, to beat him at a coffee-house; but it happened that he had left the place a few minutes before: Mr. Savage went next day to repay his visit at his own house, but was prevailed upon by his domestics to retire without insisting upon seeing him.
He now thought himself again at full liberty to expose the cruelty of his mother, and therefore about this time published THE BASTARD, a Poem remarkable for the vivacity in the beginning, where he makes a pompous enumeration of the imaginary advantages of base birth, and the pathetic sentiments at the close; where he recounts the real calamities which he suffered by the crime of his parents.
The verses which have an immediate relation to those two circumstances, we shall here insert.
In gayer hours, when high my fancy ran,
The Muse exulting thus her lay began.
Bless'd be the Bastard's birth! thro' wond'rous ways,
He shines excentric like a comet's blaze.
No sickly fruit of faint compliance he;
He stamp'd in nature's mint with extasy!
He lives to build, not boast a gen'rous race,
No tenth transmitter of a foolish face.
His daring hope, no sire's example bounds;
His first-born nights no prejudice confounds.
He, kindling from within requires no flame,
He glories in a bastard's glowing name.
—Nature's unbounded son he stands alone,
His heart unbiass'd, and his mind his own.
—O mother! yet no mother! — 'Tis to you
My thanks for such distinguish'd claims are due,
—What had I lost if conjugally kind,
By nature hating, yet by vows confin'd,
You had faint drawn me with a form alone.
A lawful lump of life, by force your own!
—I had been born your dull domestic heir;
Load of your life and motive of your care;
Perhaps been poorly rich and meanly great;
The slave of pomp, a cypher in the state:
Lordly neglectful of a worth unknown,
And slumb'ring in a seat by chance my own.
After mentioning the death of Sinclair, he goes on thus
—Where shall my hope 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 restrain'd,
This poem had extraordinary success, great numbers were immediately dispersed, and editions were multiplied with unusual rapidity.
One circumstance attended the publication, which Savage used to relate with great satisfaction. His mother, to whom the poem with due reverence was inscribed, happened then to be at Bath, where she could not conveniently retire from censure, or conceal herself from observation; and no sooner did the reputation of the poem begin to spread, than she heard it repeated in all places of concourse; nor could she enter the assembly rooms, or cross the walks, without being saluted with some lines from the Bastard. She therefore left path with the utmost haste, to shelter herself in the crowds of London. Thus Savage had the satisfaction of finding, that tho' he could not reform, he could yet punish his mother.
Some time after Mr. Savage took a resolution of applying to the queen, that having once given him life, she would enable him to support it, and therefore published a short poem on her birth day, to which he gave the odd title of Volunteer-Laureat. He had not at that time one friend to present his poem at court, yet the Queen, notwithstanding this act of ceremony was wanting, in a few days after publication, sent him a bank note of fifty-pounds, by lord North and Guildford; and her permission to write annually on the fame subject, and that he should yearly receive the like present, till something better should be done for him. After this he was permitted to present one of his annual poems to her majesty, and had the honour of kissing her hand.
When the dispute between the bishop of London, and the chancellor, furnished for some time the chief topic of conversation, Mr. Savage who was an enemy to all claims of ecclesiastical power, engaged with his usual zeal against the bishop. In consequence of his aversion to the dominion of superstitious churchmen, he wrote a poem called The Progress of a Divine, in which he conducts a profligate priest thro' all the gradations of wickedness, from a poor curacy in the country, to the highest preferment in the church and after describing his behaviour in every station, enumerates that this priest thus accomplished, found at last a patron in the bishop of London.
The clergy were universally provoked with this satire, and Savage was censured in the weekly Miscellany, with a severity he did not seem inclined to forget: But a return of invective was not thought a sufficient punishment. The court of King's-Bench was moved against him, and he was obliged to return an answer to a charge of obscenity. It was urged in his defence, that obscenity was only criminal, when it was intended to promote the practice of vice; but that Mr. Savage had only introduced obscene ideas, with a view of exposing them to detestation, and of amending the age, by shewing the deformity of wickedness. This plea was admitted, and Sir Philip York, now lord Chancellor, who then presided in that court, dismissed the information, with encomiums upon the purity and excellence of Mr. Savage's writings.
He was still in his usual exigencies, having no certain support, but the pension allowed him from the Queen, which was not sufficient to last him the fourth part of the year. His conduct, with regard to his pension, was very particular. No sooner had he changed the bill, than he vanished from the sight of all his acquaintances, and lay, for some time, out of the reach of his most intimate friends. At length be appeared again pennyless as before, but never informed any person where he had been, nor was his retreat ever discovered. This was his constant practice during the whole time he received his pension. He regularly disappeared, and returned. He indeed affirmed that he retired to study, and that the money supported him in solitude for many months, but his friends declared, that the short time in which it was spent, sufficiently confuted his own account of his conduct.
His perpetual indigence, politeness, and wit, still raised him friends, who were desirous to set him above want, and therefore sollicited Sir Robert Walpole in his favour, but though promises were given, and Mr. Savage trusted, and was trusted, yet these added but one mortification more to the many he had suffered. His hopes of preferment from that statesman issued in a disappointment upon which he published a poem in the Gentleman's Magazine, entitled, The Poet's Dependance on a Statesman; in which he complains of the severe usage he met with. But to despair was no part of the character of Savage; when one patronage failed, he had recourse to another. The Prince was now extremely popular, and had very liberally rewarded the merit of some writers, whom Mr. Savage did not think superior to himself; and therefore he resolved to address a poem to him.
For this purpose he made choice of a subject, which could regard only persons of the highest rank, and greatest affluence, and which was therefore proper for a poem intended to procure the patronage of a prince; namely, public spirit, with regard to public works. But having no friend upon whom he could prevail to present it to the Prince, he had no other method of attracting his observation, than by publishing frequent advertisements, and therefore received no reward from his patron, however generous upon other occasions. His poverty still pressing, he lodged as much by accident, as he dined; for he generally lived by chance, eating only when he was invited to the tables of his acquaintance, from which, the meanness of his dress often excluded him, when the politeness, and variety of his conversation, would have been thought a sufficient recompence for his entertainment. Having no lodging, he passed the night often in mean houses, which are set open for any casual wanderers; sometimes in cellars, amongst the riot and filth of the meanest and most profligate of the rabble; and sometimes when he was totally without money, walked about the streets till he was weary, and lay down in the summer upon a bulk, and in the winter, with his associates in poverty, among the ashes of a glass-house.
In this manner were passed those days and nights, which nature had enabled him to have employed in elevated speculations. 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, whose remarks in 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. His distresses, however afflictive, never dejected him. In his lowest sphere he wanted not spirit to assert the natural dignity of wit, and was always ready to repress that insolence, which superiority of fortune incited, and to trample that reputation which role upon any other bails, than that of merit. He never admitted any gross familiarity, or submitted to be treated otherwise than as an equal.
Once, when he was without lodging, meat, or cloaths, one of his friends, a man indeed not remarkable for moderation in prosperity, left a message, that he desired to see him about nine in the morning. Savage knew that his intention was to assist him, but was very much disgusted, that he should presume to prescribe the hour of his attendance; and therefore rejected his kindness.
The greatest hardships of poverty were to Savage, not the want of lodging, or of food, but the neglect and contempt it drew upon him. He complained that as his affairs grew desperate, he found his reputation for capacity visibly decline; that his opinion in questions of criticism was no longer regarded, when his coat was out of fashion; and that those, who in the interval of his prosperity, were always encouraging him to great undertakings, by encomiums on his genius, and assurances of success, now received any mention of his designs with coldness, and, in short, allowed him to be qualified for no other performance than volunteer-laureat. Yet even this kind of contempt never depressed him, for he always preserved a steady confidence in his own capacity, and believed nothing above his reach, which he should at any time earnestly endeavour to attain.
This life, unhappy as it may be already imagined, was yet embittered in 1738 with new distresses. The death of the Queen deprived him of all the prospects of preferment, with which he had so long entertained his imagination. But even against this calamity there was an expedient at hand. He had taken a resolution of writing a second tragedy upon the story of Sir Thomas Overbury, in which he made a total alteration of the plan, added new incidents, and introduced new characters, so that it was a new tragedy, not a revival of the former. With the profits of this scheme, when finished, he fed his imagination, but proceeded slowly in it, and, probably, only employed himself upon it, when he could find no other amusement. Upon the Queen's death it was expected of him, that he should honour her memory with a funeral panegyric: He was thought culpable for omitting it; but on her birth-day, next year, he gave a proof of the power of genius and judgment. He knew that the track of elegy had been so long beaten, that it was impossible to travel in it, without treading the footsteps of those who had gone before him, and therefore it was necessary that he might distinguish himself from the herd of encomists, to find out some new walk of funeral panegyric.
This difficult talk he performed in such a manner, that this poem may be justly ranked the best of his own, and amongst the best pieces that the death of Princes has produced. By transferring the mention of her death, to her birth day, he has formed a happy combination of topics, which any ether man would have thought it difficult to connect in one view; but the relation between them, appears natural; and it may be justly laid, that what no other man could have thought on, now seems scarcely possible for any man to miss. In this poem, when he takes occasion to mention the King, he modestly gives him a hint to continue his pension, which, however, he did not receive at the usual time, and there was some reason to think that it would be discontinued. He did not take those methods of retrieving his interest, which were most likely to succeed, for he went one day to Sir Robert Walpole's levee, and demanded the reason of the distinction that was made between him and the other pensioners of the Queen, with a degree of roughness which, perhaps, determined him to withdraw, what had only been delayed. This last misfortune he bore not only with decency, but cheerfulness, nor was his gaiety clouded, even by this disappointment, though he was, in a short time, reduced to the lowest degree of distress, and often wanted both lodging and food. At this time he gave another instance of the insurmountable obstinacy of his spirit. His cloaths were worn out, and he received notice, that at a coffee-house some cloaths and linen were left for him. The person who sent them did not, we believe, inform him to whom he was to be obliged, that he might spare the perplexity of acknowledging the benefit; but though the offer was so far generous, it was made with some neglect of ceremonies, which Mr. Savage so much resented, that he refused the present, and declined to enter the house 'till the cloaths, which were designed for him, were taken away.
His distress was now publicly known, and his friends therefore thought it proper to concert some measures for his relief. The scheme proposed was, that he should retire into Wales, and receive an allowance of fifty pounds a year, to be railed by subscription, on which he was to live privately in a cheap place, without aspiring any more to affluence, or having any farther sollicitude for fame.
This offer Mr. Savage gladly accepted, though with intentions very different from those of his friends; for they proposed that he should continue an exile from London for ever, and spend all the remaining part of his life at Swansea; but he designed only to take the opportunity which their scheme offered him, of retreating for a short time, that he might prepare his play for the stage, and his other works for the press, and then to return to London to exhibit his tragedy, and live upon the profits of his own labour.
After many sollicitations and delays, a subscription was at last raised, which did not amount to fifty pounds a year, though twenty were paid by one gentleman. He was, however, satisfied, and willing to retire, and was convinced that the allowance, though scanty, would be more than sufficient for him, being now determined to commence a rigid oeconomist.
Full of these salutary resolutions, he quitted London in 1739. He was furnished with fifteen guineas, and was told, that they would be sufficient, not only for the expence of his journey, but for his support in Wales for some time; and that there remained but little more of the first collection. He promised a strict adherence to his maxims of parsimony, and went away in the stage coach; nor did his friends expect to hear from him, 'till he informed them of his arrival at Swansea. But, when they least expected, arrived a letter dated the 14th day after his departure, in which he sent them word, that he as yet upon the road, and without money, and that he therefore could not proceed without a remittance. They then sent him the money that was in their hands, with which he was enabled to reach Bristol, from whence he was to go to Swansea by water. At Bristol he found an embargo laid upon the shipping, so that he could not immediately, obtain a passage, and being therefore obliged to stay there some time, he, with his usual felicity, ingratiated himself with many of the principal inhabitants, was invited to their houses, distinguished at their public feasts, and treated with a regard that gratified his vanity, and therefore easily engaged his affection.
After some stay at Bristol, he retired to Swansea, the place originally proposed for his residence, where he lived about a year very much dissatisfied with the diminution of his salary, for the greatest part of the contributors, irritated by Mr. Savage's letters, which they imagined treated them contemptuously, withdrew their subscriptions. At this place, as in every other, he contracted an acquaintance with those who were most distinguished that country, among whom, he has celebrated Mr. Powel, and Mrs. Jones, by some verses inserted in the Gentleman's Magazine. Here he compleated his tragedy, of which two acts were wanting when he left London, and was desirous of coming to town to bring it on the stage. This design was very warmly opposed, and he was advised by his chief benefactor, who was no other than Mr. Pope, to put it in the hands of Mr. Thomson and Mr. Mallet, that it might be fitted for the stage, and to allow his friends to receive the profits, out of which an annual pension should be paid him. This proposal he rejected with the utmost contempt. He was by no means convinced that the judgment of those to whom he was required to submit, was superior to his own. He was now determined, as he expressed, to be no longer kept in leading-strings, and had no elevated idea of his bounty, who proposed to pension him out of the profits of his own labours. He soon after this quitted Swansea, and, with an intent to return to London, went to Bristol, where a repetition of the kindness which he had formerly found, invited him to stay. He was not only caressed, and treated, but had a collection made for him of about thirty pounds, with which it had been happy if he had immediately departed for London; but he never considered that such proofs of kindness were not often to be expected, and that this ardour of benevolence was, in a great degree, the effect of novelty.
Another part of his misconduct was, the practice of prolonging his visits to unseasonable hours, and disconcerting all the families into which he was admitted. This was an error in a place of commerce, which all the charms of conversation could not compensate; for what trader would purchase such airy satisfaction, with the loss of solid gain, which must be the consequence of midnight merriment, as those hours which were gained straight were generally lost in the morning? Distress at last stole upon him by imperceptible degrees; his conduct had already wearied some of those who were at first enamoured of his conversation; but he still might have devolved to others, whom he might have entertained with equal success, had not the decay of his cloaths made it no longer consistent with decency to admit him to their tables, or to associate with him in public places. He now began to find every man from home, at whose house he called; and was therefore no longer able to procure the necessaries of life, but wandered about the town, slighted and neglected, in quest of a dinner, which he did not always obtain. To compleat his misery, he was obliged to withdraw from the small number of friends from whom he had still reason to hope for favours. His custom was to lie in bed the greatest part of the day, and to go out in the dark with the utmost privacy, and after having paid his visit, return again before morning to his lodging, which was in the garret of an obscure inn.
Being thus excluded on one hand, and confined on the other, he suffered the utmost extremities of poverty, and often fasted so long, that he was seized with faintness, and had lost his appetite, not being able to bear the smell of meat, 'till the action of his stomach was restored by a cordial.
He continued to bear these severe pressures, 'till the landlady of a coffee-house, to whom he owed about eight pounds, compleated his wretchedness. He was arrested by order of this woman, and conducted to the house of a Sheriff's officer, where he remained some time at a great expence, in hopes of finding bail. This expense he was enabled to support by a present from Mr. Nash of Bath, who, upon hearing of his late misfortune, sent him five guineas. No friends would contribute to release him from prison at the expence of eight pounds, and therefore he was removed to Newgate. He bore this misfortune with an unshaken fortitude, and indeed the treatment he met with from Mr. Dagg, the keeper of the prison, greatly softened the rigours of his confinement. He was supported by him at his own table, without any certainty of recompence; had a room to himself, to which he could at any time retire from all disturbance; was allowed to stand at the door of the prison, and sometimes taken out into the fields; so that he suffered fewer hardships in the prison, than he had been accustomed to undergo the greatest part of his life. Virtue is undoubtedly most laudable in that state which makes it most difficult; and therefore the humanity of the gaoler certainly deserves this public attestation.
While Mr. Savage was in prison, he began, and almost finished a satire, which he entitled London and Bristol Delineated; in order to be revenged of those who had had no more generosity for a man, to whom they professed friendship, than to suffer him to languish in a gaol for eight pounds. He had now ceased from corresponding with any of his subscribers, except Mr. Pope, who yet continued to remit him twenty pounds a year, which he had promised, and by whom he expected to be in a very short time enlarged; because he had directed the keeper to enquire after the state of his debts. However he took care to enter his name according to the forms of the court, that the creditors might be obliged to make him some allowance, if he was continued a prisoner; and when on that occasion he appeared in the Hall, was treated with very unusual respect.
But the resentment of the City was afterwards raised, by some accounts that had been spread of the satire, and he was informed, that some of the Merchants intended to pay the allowance which the law required, and to detain him a prisoner at their own expence. This he treated as an empty menace, and had he not been prevented by death, he would have hastened the publication of the satire, only to shew how much he was superior to their insults.
When he had been six months in prison, he received from Mr. Pope, in whose kindness he had the greatest confidence, and on whose assistance he chiefly depended, a letter that contained a charge of very atrocious ingratitude, drawn up in such terms as sudden resentment dictated. Mr. Savage returned a very solemn protestation of his innocence, but however appeared much disturbed at the accusation. Some days afterwards he was seized with a pain in his back and side, which, as it was not violent, was not suspected to be dangerous; but growing daily more languid and dejected, on the 25th of July he confined himself to his room, and a fever seized his spirits. The symptoms grew every day more formidable, but his condition did not enable him to procure any assistance. The last time the keeper saw him was on July 31, when Savage, seeing him at his bed-side, said, with uncommon earnestness, I have something to say to you, sir, but, after a pause, moved his hand in a melancholy manner, and finding himself unable to recollect what he was going to communicate, said, 'tis gone. The keeper soon after left him, and the next morning he died. He was buried in the church-yard of St. Peter, at the expence of the keeper.
Such were the life and death of this unfortunate poet; a man equally distinguished by his virtues and vices, and, at once, remarkable for his weaknesses and abilities. He was of a middle stature, of a thin habit of body, a long visage, coarse features, and a melancholy aspect; of a grave and manly deportment, a solemn dignity of mien, but which, upon a nearer acquaintance, softened into an engaging easiness of manners. His walk was slow, and his voice tremulous and mournful. He was easily excited to smiles, but very seldom provoked to laughter. His judgment was eminently exact, both with regard to writings and to men. The knowledge of life was his chief attainment. He was born rather to bear misfortunes greatly, than to enjoy prosperity with moderation. He discovered an amazing firmness of spirit, in spurning those who presumed to dictate to him in the lowest circumstances of misery; but we never can reconcile the idea of true greatness of mind, with the perpetual inclination Savage discovered to live upon the bounty of his friends. To struggle for independence appears much more laudable, as well as a higher instance of spirit, than to be the pensioner of another.
As Savage had seen so much of the world, and was capable of so deep a penetration into nature, it was strange he could not form some scheme of a livelihood, more honourable than that of a poetical mendicant: his prosecuting any plan of life with diligence, would have thrown more lustre on his character, than all his works, and have raised our ideas of the greatness of his spirit, much beyond the conduct we have already seen. If poverty is so great an evil as to expose a man to commit actions, at which he afterwards blushes, to avoid this poverty should be the continual care of every man; and he, who lets slip every opportunity of doing so, is more entitled to admiration than pity, should he bear his sufferings nobly.
Mr. Savage's temper, in consequence of the dominion of his passions, was uncertain and capricious. He was easily engaged, and easily disgusted; but he is accused of retaining his hatred more tenaciously than his benevolence. He was compassionate both by nature and principle, and always ready to perform offices of humanity; but when he was provoked, and very small offences were sufficient to provoke him, he would prosecute his revenge with the utmost acrimony, 'till his passion had subsided. His friendship was therefore of little value, for he was zealous in the support, or vindication of those whom he loved, yet it was always dangerous to trust him, because he considered himself as discharged by the first quarrel, from all ties of honour and gratitude. He would even betray those secrets, which, in the warmth of confidence, had been imparted to him. His veracity was often questioned, and not without reason. When he loved any man, he suppressed all his faults, and when he had been offended by him, concealed all his virtues. But his characters were generally true, so far as he proceeded, though it cannot be denied, but his partiality might have sometimes the effect of falshood.
In the words of the celebrated writer of his life, from whom, as we observed in the beginning, we have extracted the account here given, we shall conclude this unfortunate person's Memoirs, which were so various as to afford large scope for an able biographer, and which, by this gentleman, have been represented with so great a mastery, and force of penetration, that the Life of Savage, as written by him, is an excellent model for this species of writing.
"This relation (says he) will not be wholly without its use, if those, who languish under any part of his sufferings, should be enabled to fortify their patience, by reflecting that they feel only those afflictions from which the abilities of Savage did not exempt him or those, who in confidence of superior capacities, or attainments, disregard the common maxims of life, shall be reminded that nothing can supply the want of prudence, and that negligence and irregularity long continued, will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible."