1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Savage

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:1-3.



RICHARD SAVAGE is better known for his misfortunes, as related by Johnson, than for any peculiar novelty or merit in his poetry. The latter rarely rises above the level of tame mediocrity; the former were a romance of real life, stranger than fiction. Savage was born in London in 1698, the issue of an adulterous connexion between the Countess of Macclesfield and Lord Rivers. The lady openly avowed her profligacy, in order to obtain a divorce from her husband, with whom she lived on unhappy terms, and the illegitimate child was born after their separation. He was placed under the charge of a poor woman, and brought up as her son. The boy, however, obtained a superior education through the care and generosity of his maternal grandmother, Lady Mason, who placed him at a grammar-school in St. Albans. Whilst he was there Lord Rivers died, and in his last illness, it is said the countess had the inhumanity and falsehood to state that Savage was dead, by which he was deprived of a provision intended for him by his father. Such unnatural and unprincipled conduct almost exceeds belief. The boy was now withdrawn from school, and placed apprentice to a shoemaker; but an accident soon revealed his birth and the cause of its concealment. His nurse and supposed mother died, and among her effects Savage found some letters which disclosed the circumstances of his paternity. The discovery must have seemed like the opening of a new world to his hopes and ambition. He was already distinguished for quickness and proficiency, and for a sanguine enthusiastic temperament. A bright prospect had dawned on him; he was allied to rank and opulence; and though his birth was accompanied by humiliating circumstances, it was not probable that he felt these deeply, in the immediate view of emancipation from the low station and ignoble employment to which he had been harshly condemned. We know also that Savage was agitated by those tenderer feelings which link the child to the parent, and which must have burst upon him with peculiar force after so unexpected and wonderful a discovery. The mother of the youth, however, was an exception to ordinary humanity — an anomaly in the history of the female heart. She had determined to disown him, and repulsed every effort at acknowledgment and recognition — "Alone from strangers every comfort flowed." His remarkable history became known, and friends sprang up to shield the hapless youth from poverty. Unfortunately, the vices and frailties of his own character began soon to be displayed. Savage was not destitute of a love of virtue and principles of piety, but his habits were low and sensual. His temper was irritable and capricious; and whatever money he received, was instantly spent in the obscure haunts of dissipation. In a tavern brawl he had the misfortune to kill a Mr. James Sinclair, for which he was tried and condemned to death. His relentless mother, it is said, endeavoured to intercept the royal mercy; but Savage was pardoned by Queen Caroline, and set at liberty. He published various poetical pieces as a means of support; and having addressed a birth-day ode to the queen, calling himself the "Volunteer Laureate" (to the annoyance it is said, of Colley Cibber, the legitimate inheritor of the laurel), her majesty sent him £50, and continued the same sum to him every year. His threats and menaces induced Lord Tyrconnel, a friend of his mother, to take him into his family, where he lived on equal terms, and was allowed a sum of £200 per annum. This, as Johnson remarks, was the "golden period" of Savage's life. As might have been foreseen, however, the habits of the poet differed very widely from those of the peer; they soon quarrelled, and the former was again set adrift on the world The death of the queen also stopped his pension; but his friends made up an annuity for him of equal amount, to which Pope generously contributed £20. Savage agreed to withdraw to the country to avoid the temptations of London. He selected Swansea, but stopping at Bristol, was treated with great kindness by the opulent merchants and other inhabitants, whom he afterwards libelled in a sarcastic poem. In Swansea he resided about a year; but on revisiting Bristol, he was arrested for a small debt, and being unable to find bail, was thrown into prison. His folly, extravagance, and pride, though it was "pride that licks the dust," had left him almost without a friend. He made no vigorous effort to extricate or maintain himself. Pope continued his allowance; but being provoked by some part of his conduct, he wrote to him, stating that he was "determined to keep out of his suspicion by not being officious any longer, or obtruding into any of his concerns." Savage felt the force of this rebuke from the steadiest and most illustrious of his friends. He was soon afterwards taken ill, and his condition not enabling him to procure medical assistance, he was found dead in his bed on the morning of the 1st of August 1743. The keeper of the prison, who had treated him with great kindness, buried the unfortunate poet at his own expense.

Savage was the author of two plays, and a volume of miscellaneous poems. Of the latter, the principal piece is "The Wanderer," written with greater care than most of his other productions, as it was the offspring of that happy period of his life when he lived with Lord Tyrconnel. Amidst much puerile and tawdry description, "The Wanderer" contains some impressive passages. The versification is easy and correct. The Bastard is, however, a superior poem, and bears the impress of true and energetic feeling. One couplet is worthy of Pope. Of the bastard he says,

He lives to build, not boast a generous race:
No tenth transmitter of a foolish face.

The concluding passage, in which he mourns over the fatal act by which he deprived a fellow mortal of life, and over his own distressing condition, possesses a genuine and manly pathos:—

Is chance a guilt, that my disastrous heart,
For mischief never meant, must ever smart?
Can self-defence be sin? Ah, plead no more!
What though no purposed malice stained thee o'er!
Had heaven befriended thy unhappy side,
Thou hadst not been provoked — or thou hadst died.
Far be the guilt of homeshed blood from all
On whom, unsought, embroiling dangers fall!
Still the pale dead revives, and lives to me,
To me! through Pity's eye condemned to see.
Remembrance veils his race, but swells his fate;
Grieved I forgive, and am grown cool too late.
Young and unthoughtful then; who knows, one day
What ripening virtues might have made their way!
He might have lived till folly died in shame
Till kindling wisdom felt a thirst for fame.
He might perhaps his country's friend have proved;
Both happy, generous, candid, and beloved;
He might have saved some worth, now doomed to fall,
And I, perchance, in him, have murdered all.

O fate of late repentance! always vain:
Thy remedies but lull undying pain.
Where shall my hope find rest? No mother's care
Shielded my infant innocence with prayer:
No father's guardian hand my youth maintained,
Called forth my virtues, or from vice restrained;
Is it not thine to snatch some powerful arm
First to advance, then screen from future harm!
Am I returned from death to live in pain?
Or would imperial pity save in vain!
Distrust it not. What blame can mercy find
Which gives at once a life, and rears a mind!

Mother, miscalled, farewell — of soul severe,
This sad reflection yet may force one tear:
All I was wretched by to you I owed;
Alone from strangers every comfort flowed!
Lost to the life you gave, your son no more,
And now adopted, who was doomed before,
New born, I may a nobler mother claim,
But dare not whisper her immortal name;
Supremely lovely, and serenely great,
Majestic mother of a kneeling state;
Queen of a people's heart, who ne'er before
Agreed — yet now with one consent adore!
One contest yet remains in this desire,
Who most shall give applause where all admire.