RICHARD SAVAGE, an eminent instance of the uselessness and insignificancy of knowledge, wit, and genius, without prudence and a proper regard to the common maxims of life, was born in 1698. He was the son of Anne countess of Macclesfield, by the earl of Rivers. He might have been considered as the lawful issue of the earl of Macclesfield; but his mother, in order to procure a separation from her husband, made a public confession of adultery in this instance. As soon as this spurious offspring was brought to light, the countess treated him with every kind of unnatural cruelty. She committed him to the care of a poor woman, to educate as her own. She prevented the earl of Rivers from making him a bequest in his will of £6000 by declaring him dead. She endeavoured to send him secretly to the American plantations; and at last, to bury him in poverty and obscurity for ever, she placed him as an apprentice to a shoemaker in Holborn. About this time his nurse died; and in searching her effects, which he imagined to be his right, he found some letters which informed him of his birth, and the reasons for which it was concealed. He now left his low occupation, and tried every method to awaken the tenderness, and attract the regard, of his mother: but all his assiduity was without effect; for he could neither soften her heart, nor open her hand, and he was reduced to the miseries of want. By the care of the lady Mason, mother to the countess, he had been placed at the grammar-school at St. Alban's, where he had acquired all the learning which his situation allowed; and necessity now obliged him to become an author.
The first effort of his uncultivated genius was a poem against Hoadly, bishop of Bangor; of which the author was afterwards ashamed. He then attempted to write for the stage, but with little success yet this attempt was attended with some advantage, as it introduced him to the acquaintance of sir Richard Steele and Mr. Wilks. Whilst he was in dependence on these gentlemen, he was an assiduous frequenter of the theatres, and never absent from a play in several years. In 1723 he brought a tragedy on the stage, in which himself performed a part, the subject of which was "Sir Thomas Overbury." If we consider the circumstances tinder which it was written, it will afford at once an uncommon proof of strength of genius, and an evenness of mind not to be ruffled. Whilst he was employed upon this work, he was without a lodging, and often without food; nor had he any other conveniences for study than the fields or the street; and, when he had formed a speech, he would step into a shop, and beg the use of pen, ink, and paper. The profits of this play amounted to about £200; and it procured him the notice and esteem of many persons of distinction, some rays of genius glimmering through all the clouds of poverty and oppression. But, when the world was beginning to behold him with a more favourable eye, a misfortune befel him, by which not only his reputation, but his life, was in danger. In a night-ramble he fell into a coffee-house of ill-fame, near Charing-Cross; when a quarrel happened, and one Mr. Sinclair was killed in the fray. Savage, with his companion, was taken into custody, tried for murder, and capitally convicted of the offence. His mother was so inhuman, at this critical juncture, as to use all means to prejudice the queen against him, and to intercept all the hopes he had of life from the royal mercy; but at last the countess of Hertford, out of compassion, laid a true account of the extraordinary story and sufferings of poor Savage before her majesty; and obtained his pardon.
He now recovered his liberty, but had no means of subsistence; and a scheme struck him, by which lie might compel his mother to do something for him, and extort that from her by satire, which she had denied to natural affection. The expedient proved successful; and lord Tyrconnel, on his promise to lay aside his design, received him into his family, treated him as his equal, and engaged to allow him a pension of £200 a-year. In this gay period of life, when he was surrounded by affluence and pleasure, he published "The Wanderer, a moral Poem," 1729, which was approved by Pope, and which the author himself considered as his master-piece. It was addressed to the earl of Tyrconnel, with the highest strains of panegyric. These praises, however, in a short time, lie found himself inclined to retract, being discarded by that nobleman on account of his imprudent and licentious behaviour. He now thought himself again at liberty to expose the cruelty of his mother, and accordingly published "The Bastard, a Poem." This had an extraordinary sale: and, its appearance happening at a time when the countess was at Bath, many persons there in her hearing took frequent opportunities of repeating passages from it, until shame obliged her to quit the place.
Some time after this, Savage formed a resolution of applying to the queen: she had given him his life, and he hoped her goodness might enable him to support it. He published a poem on her birthday, which he entitled "The Volunteer Laureat." She graciously sent him fifty pounds, with an intimation that he might annually expect the same bounty. His conduct with regard to this pension was very characteristic; as soon as he had received it, he immediately disappeared, and lay for some time out of the reach of his most intimate friends. At length he was seen again, pennyless as before, but never informed any person where he had been, nor was his retreat ever discovered. His perpetual indigence, politeness, and wit, still raised him new friends, as fast as his misbehaviour lost him his old ones; and sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, was warmly solicited in his favour. Promises were given, but ended in disappointment; upon which he published a poem in the "Gentleman's Magazine," entitled, "The Poet's Dependence on a Statesman."
His poverty still increasing, he only dined by accident, when he was invited to the tables of his acquaintance, from which the meanness of his dress often excluded him. Having no lodgings, 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. His distresses, however afflictive, never dejected him. In his lowest sphere, his pride kept up his spirits, and set him on a level with those of the highest rank. He never admitted any gross familiarity, or submitted to be treated otherwise than as an equal. This wretched life was rendered more unhappy, in 1738, by the death of the queen, and the loss of his pension. His distress was now publicly known, and his friends, therefore, thought proper to concert some measures for procuring him a permanent relief. It was proposed that he should retire into Wales, with an allowance of £50 per annum, to be raised by subscription, on which he was to live privately in a cheap place, and lay aside all his aspiring thoughts.
This offer he seemed to accept with great joy, and set out on his journey with fifteen guineas in his purse. His friends and benefactors, the principal of whom was Pope, expected now to hear of his arrival in Wales; but, on the 14th day after his departure, they were surprised with a letter from him, acquainting them that he was yet upon the road, and without money, and could not proceed without a remittance. The money was sent, by which he was enabled to reach Bristol; whence he was to go to Swansea by water. He could not immediately obtain a passage, and therefore was obliged to stay some time at Bristol; where, with his usual facility, he made an acquaintance with the principal people, and was treated with all kinds of civility. At last he reached the place proposed for his residence; where he stayed a year, and completed a tragedy, which he had begun in London. He was now desirous of coming to town to bring it on the stage: but his friends, and particularly Pope, who was his chief benefactor, opposed the design very strongly; and advised him to put it into the hands of Thomson and Mallet, to fit it for the stage, and to allow his friends to receive the profits, out of which an annual pension should be paid him. The proposal he rejected, quitted Swansea, and set off for London; but, at Bristol, a repetition of the kindness he had formerly found, invited him to stay. He stayed so long, that by his imprudence and misconduct he wearied out all his friends. His wit had lost its novelty; and his irregular behaviour, and late hours, grew very troublesome to men of business. His money was spent, his cloaths worn out, and his shabby appearance made it difficult for him to obtain a dinner. Here, however, he stayed, in the midst of poverty, hunger, and contempt, till the mistress of a coffeehouse, to whom he owed about £8 arrested him for the debt. He could find no bail, and was therefore lodged in prison. During his confinement, he began, and almost finished, a satire, entitled "London and Bristol delineated;" in order to be revenged on those who had no more generosity than to suffer a man, for whom they professed a regard, to languish in a gaol for so small a sum.
When he had been six months in prison, he received a letter from Pope, on whom his chief dependance now rested, containing a charge of very atrocious ingratitude. Savage returned a very solemn protestation of his innocence; and he appeared much disturbed at the accusation. In a few days after, he was seized with a disorder, which at first was not suspected to be dangerous; but, growing daily more languid and dejected, at last, a fever seizing him, he expired, August 1, 1743, in his forty-sixth year, and was buried in the church-yard of St. Peter, at the expence of the gaoler. Thus lived, and thus died, Richard Savage, leaving behind him a character strangely chequered with vices and good qualities. He was, however, undoubtedly a man of excellent parts; and, had he received the full benefits of a liberal education, and had his natural talents been cultivated to the best advantage, he might have made 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, but implacable in his enmity; and his greatest fault, which is indeed the greatest of all faults, was ingratitude. He seemed to think every thing due to his merit, and that he was little obliged to any one for those favours which he thought it their duty to confer on him it is therefore the less to he wondered at, that he never rightly estimated the kindness of his many friends and benefactors, or preserved a grateful and due sense of their generosity towards him.
The works of this original writer, after having long lain dispersed in magazines and fugitive publications, were collected and published by T. Evans, bookseller, in the Strand, in an elegant edition in two volumes, octavo, to which are prefixed the admirable "Memoirs of Savage," written by Dr. Samuel Johnson. They have since been incorporated in the "English Poets."