Richard Savage (1697?1743)



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Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

SAVAGE, RICHARD (d. 1743), poet, was, according to his own statement, the illegitimate son of Richard Savage, fourth earl Rivers [q. v.] He claimed as his mother Anne, daughter of Sir Richard Mason of Sutton, Surrey, and wife of Charles Gerard, second earl of Macclesfield (1659?–1701) [q. v.] It is known that Lady Macclesfield, while separated from her husband, had two children by Lord Rivers, and that consequently Lord Macclesfield obtained a divorce on 15 March 1698. Of Lady Macclesfield's illegitimate children the elder, a girl, died in infancy; the younger was baptised as Richard Smith in Fox Court on 18 Jan. 1696–7 by the minister of St. Andrew's, Holborn, in the presence of Lord Rivers, of Newdigate Ousley, his godfather, and of Dorothea Ousley, his godmother (St. Andrew's Register). The child can be traced in the same year to the care of Anne Portlock, a baker's wife, living in Covent Garden. It is probable that he died young. At all events, he was not again heard of until Richard Savage advanced his claim to identity with him in 1718.

According to public statements made by Savage's supporters, his mother conceived a great aversion for him, and determined to disown him. She committed him to the care of a poor woman, who brought him up as her son; but his grandmother, Lady Mason, and his godmother, Mrs. Lloyd, took an interest in him, and the former sent him to a small grammar school near St. Albans. Mrs. Lloyd, however, died when he was nine, and his mother, who had married Henry Brett [q. v.], continued her hostility towards him. She prevented Lord Rivers from leaving him a bequest of 6,000l., by informing him that his son was dead. She vainly endeavoured to have him kidnapped to the West Indies, and, when that scheme failed, apprenticed him to a shoemaker, that he might be brought up in obscurity and forgotten. But about that time his nurse died, and, looking through her papers, Savage discovered the secret of his birth. At once breaking his indentures, he endeavoured to enforce his claims on his mother.

There are four contemporary accounts of Savage's early life, all supporting this story; but all were inspired by Savage himself. The first was published in 1719 in Curll's ‘Poetical Register.’ The second was inserted by Aaron Hill in his periodical, ‘The Plain Dealer,’ in 1724. The third was an anonymous life which appeared in 1727, and was said by Johnson to be written by Beckenham and another. The last was avowedly by Savage himself, and appeared as a preface to the second edition of his ‘Miscellanies’ in 1728. From these and from the poet's own statements Dr. Johnson compiled that ‘Life of Savage’ (1744) which made the story classical.

No documents in support of Savage's pretensions have been produced, not even those letters from which he himself claimed to make the discovery. All the details are vague, lacking in names and dates; they cannot be independently authenticated, and long intervals in his early life are left unaccounted for. Research has been unable to confirm the existence of Mrs. Lloyd. In the register of St. Andrew's he is only allotted one godmother, Dorothea Ousley, who married Robert Delgardno at St. James's, Westminster, on 24 Sept. 1698 (Harleian Society Publications, xxvi. 323). There is no record of any communication between Savage and Lady Mason, the alleged guardian of his childhood, though she did not die till 1717. Newdigate Ousley, his godfather, who lived till 1714 at Enfield in Middlesex, was unknown to him. Lord Rivers's will is dated fourteen months before his death, and contains no codicil, though Savage asserted that he revoked the legacy to him on his deathbed. His reputed mother (Mrs. Brett) steadily maintained that he was an impostor. When to these considerations is added the fact that Savage, very late in life, contradicted essential details in the published story in a letter to Elizabeth Carter on 10 May 1739, the falsity of his tale seems demonstrated (cf. Mr. Moy Thomas's able series of articles in Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 361, 385, 424, 445).

The chief points in his favour are that Lord Tyrconnel, Mrs. Brett's nephew, after Savage had published his story, received him into his household, and that one at least of Lord Rivers's children, whom he styles his sister, recognised his claim, and corresponded with him in his later years (Gent. Mag. 1787, ii. 1039). That Mrs. Brett took no decisive steps to disprove his claims was owing doubtless to her unwillingness to revive the memory of her disgrace, and to the difficulty of obtaining proof of her child Richard's death. The boy (of which she was delivered in a mask) had been purposely hurried from one hiding-place to another while the divorce was pending, to deprive Lord Macclesfield of evidence of adultery.

Savage was probably of humble parentage, and early turned to literature for a livelihood. According to Johnson, his first literary effort was a comedy entitled ‘Woman's a Riddle,’ adapted from the Spanish. Being unable to get it played, he gave it to Christopher Bullock [q. v.], who brought it out at Lincoln's Inn Fields on 4 Dec. 1716. Baker, however, assigns the authorship to the wife of Robert Price [q. v.], a baron of the exchequer, from whom both Savage and Bullock are said to have stolen it. In 1717 he published a poem of no particular merit entitled ‘The Convocation, or the Battle of Pamphlets,’ London, 8vo. It was directed against Bishop Hoadly; but Savage was afterwards so much ashamed of it that he destroyed all the copies on which he could lay hands.

His next production was ‘Love in a Veil,’ a comedy, likewise borrowed from the Spanish, which was first acted at Drury Lane on 17 June 1718, and was printed in the following year. This play, though unsuccessful, gained for him the friendship of Wilks the comedian and of Sir Richard Steele. The latter took a great liking to him, and proposed to marry him to Miss Ousley, his natural daughter. The match fell through, owing to Steele's failure to raise the 1,000l. he proposed to bestow upon her. Savage declares that he never entertained the match; other accounts state that it was broken off because Steele heard that his intended son-in-law had held him up to ridicule. At any rate, a quarrel ensued, and Savage for a time was reduced to great distress. Mrs. Oldfield, who benefited under Earl Rivers's will, rendered him occasional assistance. Cibber, however, contradicts Johnson's assertion that she settled on him a pension of 50l. a year, and declares that she could not abide Savage, and would never see him (Lives of the Poets, v. 33). In 1723, while frequently lacking both food and lodging, he composed the tragedy ‘Sir Thomas Overbury,’ which was acted at Drury Lane on 12 June that year. Savage himself made an essay as an actor, and played the title-rôle, ‘by which he gained no great reputation, the theatre being a province for which nature seemed not to have designed him.’ After the publication of the play, in the following year he found that it had brought him in 100l., a larger sum than he had possessed before.

On 26 June 1724 Aaron Hill, who had already shown him several kindnesses, published the story of his birth in the ‘Plain Dealer.’ The narrative was accompanied by some lines on his mother's conduct, purporting to be written by Savage, but in reality composed by Hill himself. Hill doubtless revised much of Savage's published work, and the substantive authorship of two of Savage's principal poems, ‘The Wanderer’ and the first ‘Volunteer Laureate,’ has been claimed for Hill in a ‘Life’ of that writer by ‘I. K.’ prefixed to the 1760 edition of Hill's ‘Dramatic Works.’

After the appearance in the ‘Plain Dealer’ of Savage's story a subscription was set on foot which enabled him to publish ‘Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands’ in 1726. The poet's story was now well known, and procured him considerable sympathy. His prospects were steadily improving when, on 20 Nov. 1727, he killed a gentleman named James Sinclair in a tavern brawl. He was tried before the ‘hanging judge,’ Sir Francis Page [q. v.], and condemned to death. It is asserted that after his conviction all Mrs. Brett's influence was employed to obtain his execution. Certainly from this time his hostility to her became more marked. He owed his life to the intercession of Frances Thynne, countess of Hertford, who obtained his pardon on 9 March 1728.

On his liberation an anonymous poem appeared, of which he was probably the author, entitled ‘Nature in Perfection, or the Mother Unveiled’ (London, 1728), in which Mrs. Brett was ironically congratulated on her son's escape, and, with her daughter Anne, was recklessly vilified. This was followed next month by ‘The Bastard,’ a poem which went through five editions in a few months, and which Johnson says had the effect of driving Mrs. Brett from Bath ‘to shelter herself among the crowds of London.’ In the same year appeared the bitter narrative of his early life, which prefaced the second edition of the ‘Miscellanies.’

Alarmed by public sentiment, and by Savage's growing reputation, Lord Tyrconnel, Mrs. Brett's nephew, undertook to settle on him a pension of 200l., and to receive him into his house, on condition of his abstaining from further attacks. Savage accepted the offer and conditions. ‘This,’ says Johnson, ‘was the golden part of Mr. Savage's life. To admire him 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 public entertainment popular, and his example and approbation constituted the fashion.’

About this time he published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Author to be Let.’ In the scandalous introduction he revealed the secret history of many minor writers. He also supplied Pope with private intelligence for his ‘Dunciad,’ and his pamphlet was republished in 1732 in a ‘Collection of Pieces relating to the “Dunciad.”’ Savage thus gained the esteem of Pope and the enmity of his victims (Gent. Mag. 1837, i. 135; D'Israeli, Works, 1859, v. 279).

In January 1729 he published ‘The Wanderer,’ London, 8vo, a poem which he considered his masterpiece, and which Pope read thrice with increasing approval. To Johnson and Scott it seemed to lack coherence (Lockhart, Life of Scott, 1845, p. 447). It bears traces of the influence of Thomson, and contains vivid if somewhat crude descriptions of nature.

In 1730 Mrs. Oldfield, his former benefactress, died, and Chetwood assigns to him an anonymous poem entitled ‘A Poem to the Memory of Mrs. Oldfield,’ though Johnson denies his responsibility and asserts that he was content to wear mourning for her (Chetwood, General History of the Stage, 1749, p. 204). In 1732 he published a panegyric of Sir Robert Walpole, for which that statesman gave him twenty guineas. Savage had no liking for Walpole's policy; but he explained that he was constrained to write in his favour by the importunity of Lord Tyrconnel.

On the death of Laurence Eusden, the poet laureate, on 27 Sept. 1730, Savage used every effort to be nominated his successor. Through Tyrconnel's influence with Mrs. Clayton (afterwards Lady Sundon) [q. v.], mistress of George II, he obtained the king's consent to his appointment; but at the last moment the Duke of Grafton, who was lord chamberlain, conferred the post on Colley Cibber. Nevertheless Savage published a poem in 1732 on Queen Caroline's birthday which gratified her so much that she settled on him a pension of 50l. a year ‘till something better was found for him,’ on condition that he celebrated her birthday annually. Savage assumed the title of ‘Volunteer Laureate,’ notwithstanding the remonstrances of Cibber, and continued his yearly tribute until the queen's death in 1737. Several of the poems were printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1736 p. 100, 1737 p. 114, 1738 pp. 154, 210).

The poet's friendship with Lord Tyrconnel was not of long continuance. In 1734 Savage complained that he had to listen to disagreeable admonitions on his way of life, while his allowance was irregularly paid. The quarrel rapidly developed. Savage denounced his former benefactor as ‘Right Honourable Brute and Booby,’ and complained that Tyrconnel, amid other ‘acts of wanton cruelty,’ came with hired bullies to beat him at a coffee-house.

In 1734 a dispute arose between Edmund Gibson [q. v.], bishop of London, and Lord-chancellor Talbot concerning the appointment of Dr. Rundle to the see of Gloucester. Savage warmly espoused Rundle's cause, and in July 1735 published ‘The Progress of a Divine’ (London, fol.), in which he traced the rise of a ‘profligate priest,’ insinuating that such a man was certain to find a patron in the bishop of London. So gratuitous a libel not only procured Savage a castigation in the ‘Weekly Miscellany’ (see also Gent. Mag. 1735, pp. 213, 268, 329), but he was proceeded against in the court of king's bench on the charge of obscenity. He was acquitted, but found himself again in extreme need. Walpole promised him a place of 200l. a year, but was probably deterred from fulfilling his pledge when he learned of the poet's avowals of attachment to the memory of Bolingbroke and the tory ministers of Queen Anne. Savage was therefore left to mourn his disappointment in a poem entitled ‘The Poet's Dependence on a Statesman,’ published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1736, p. 225). He was equally unfortunate in an attempt to gain the patronage of Frederick, prince of Wales, by a eulogistic poem entitled ‘Of Public Spirit in regard to Public Works,’ London, 1737, 8vo. The death of the queen, 20 Nov. 1737, deprived Savage of his last resource. He published ‘A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Her Majesty’ on the anniversary of her birthday, 1 March 1738, but failed to obtain from Walpole the continuance of his pension. Johnson, who came to London in 1737, and early made Savage's acquaintance, relates how they frequently roamed the streets together all night; on one occasion they traversed St. James's Square for several hours denouncing Sir Robert Walpole and forming resolutions to ‘stand by their country.’ Savage's distress was increased by his irregular habits, which deterred his friends from harbouring him, and by his pride, which led him to refuse many offers of assistance because they were made with too little ceremony. He formed the project of printing his works by subscription, and published a proposal to that effect in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' as early as February 1737. But, although he repeatedly printed advertisements of his design, it was not carried out.

In 1739 a vain effort was made by Pope to reconcile him to Lord Tyrconnel. Shortly afterwards Savage promised to retire to Swansea, and to live there on a pension of 50l. a year, to be raised in London by subscription. Pope contributed 20l. In July Savage left London, after taking leave of Johnson, with tears in his eyes. He carried a sum of money deemed sufficient for the journey and the first months of his stay. But in fourteen days a message arrived that he was penniless and still on the road. A remittance was forwarded. He lingered at Bristol, and alienated most of his friends in London by petulant letters. When he finally reached Swansea he found the contributions raised in London supplied little more than 20l. a year. Twelve months sufficed to weary Savage of Swansea, and he returned to Bristol with a revised version of his tragedy, 'Sir Thomas Overbury,' intending to raise funds there to enable him to proceed to London. But, tempted by the hospitality offered him in Bristol, he put off his departure until, on 10 Jan. 1743, having exhausted the hospitality of the inhabitants, he was arrested for debt, and confined in the city Newgate. Beau Nash sent him 5l. from Bath; but otherwise he received little assistance. To avenge this neglect he composed a satire entitled 'London and Bristol Delineated,' which was published in 1744 after his death. While he was still in prison, Henley published certain insinuations concerning 'Pope's treatment of Savage.' Pope charged Savage with slandering him to Henley. Savage, in reply, solemnly protested his innocence, but he was agitated by the accusation; his health was infirm, and he developed a fever, of which he died on 1 Aug. 1743. He was buried on the following day in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Bristol. The position of his grave is uncertain, but a tablet has been erected to him in the south wall of the church (Nicholls and Taylor's Bristol, Past and Present, iii. 188; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iv. 286).

No portrait of Savage exists. Johnson describes him as 'of middle stature, of a thin habit of body, a long visage, coarse features, and melancholy aspect; of a grave and manly deportment, a solemn dignity of mien,which on 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.' Savage was a brilliant conversationalist, and, like Johnson, was always eager for society. In later life he was a freemason, and acted as master on 7 Sept. 1737 at the Old Man's Tavern, Charing Cross, when James Thomson, the author of 'The Seasons,' was admitted a mason (Bodl. MSS. Rawl. C. 136).

As an author Savage was unequal. 'The Bastard' is a poem of considerable merit, and 'The Wanderer' contains passages of poetic power. His satires are vigorous, though extremely bitter. But most of his pieces are mere hack-work written to supply the exigencies of the moment. Besides the works mentioned, he was the author of: 1. 'A Poem on the Memory of George F,' Dublin, 1727, 8vo. 2. 'Verses occasioned by Lady Tyrconnel's Recovery from the Smallpox at Bath,' London, 1730, fol. 3. 'On the Departure of the Prince and Princess of Orange,' London, 1734, fol. 4. 'A Poem on the Birthday of the Prince of Wales,' London, 1735, fol., besides many minor pieces published in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' and other periodicals. His principal poems were published collectively in 1761 under title 'Various Poems,' London, 8vo; but a complete edition of his works was not issued until 1775, London, 2 vols. 8vo. The 'Memoirs of Theophilus Keene' (London, 1718, 8vo) are also attributed to him (Lowe, Theatrical Literature, p. 291).

[Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, 1887, i. 161-74; Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, ed. Cunningham, 1851, ii. 341-444; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, passim (esp. ii. 75, where is a summary of Moy Thomas's conclusions); Aitken's Life of Steele, ii. 204-6; Griffiths's Chronicles of Newgate, p. 212; Dasent's Hist. of St. James's Square; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica, i. 625-35; Chambers's Biogr. Dict.; Elwin's Introduction to Pope's Works; Ruffhead's Life of Pope, passim; Fitzgerald's English Stage, ii. 16-22; Waller's Imperial Dict. of Biography; Gait's Lives of the Players, pp. 93-120; Spence's Anecdotes, 1858, p. 270; Richard Savage, a novel by Charles Whitehead, 1842, preface.]

E. I. C.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

SAVAGE, RICHARD (d. 1743), English poet, was born about 1697, probably of humble parentage. A romantic account of his origin and early life, for which he at any rate supplied the material, appeared in Curll's Poetical Register in 1719. On this and other information provided by Savage, Samuel Johnson founded his Life of Savage, one of the most elaborate of the Lives. It was printed anonymously in 1744, and has made the poet the object of an interest which would be hardly justified by his writings. In 1698 Charles Gerrard, 2nd earl of Macclesfield, obtained a divorce from his wife, Anna, daughter of Sir Richard Mason, who shortly afterwards married Colonel Henry Brett. Lady Macclesfield had two children by Richard Savage, 4th earl Rivers, the second of whom was born at Fox Court, Holborn, on the 16th of January 1697, and christened two days later at St Andrews, Holborn, as Richard Smith. Six months later the child was placed with Anne Portlock in Covent Garden; nothing more is positively known of him. In 1718 Richard Savage claimed to be this child. He stated that he had been cared for by Lady Mason, his grandmother, who had put him to school near St Albans, and by his godmother, Mrs Lloyd. He said he had been pursued by the relentless hostility of his mother, Mrs Brett, who had prevented Lord Rivers from leaving £6000 to him and had tried to have him kidnapped for the West Indies. His statements are not corroborated by the depositions of the witnesses in the Macclesfield divorce case, and Mrs Brett always maintained that he was an impostor. He was wrong in the date of his birth; moreover, the godmother of Lady Macclesfield's son was Dorothea Ousley (afterwards Mrs Delgardno), not Mrs Lloyd. There is nothing to show that Mrs Brett was the cruel and vindictive woman he describes her to be, but abundant evidence that she provided for her illegitimate children. Discrepancies in Savage's story made Boswell suspicious, but the matter was thoroughly investigated for the first time by W. Moy Thomas, who published the results of his researches in Notes and Queries (second series, vol. vi., 1858). Savage, impostor or not, blackmailed Mrs Brett and her family with some success, for after the publication of The Bastard (1728) her nephew, John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel, purchased his silence by taking him into his house and allowing him a pension of £200 a year. Savage's first certain work was a poem satirizing Bishop Hoadly, entitled The Convocation, or The Battle of Pamphlets (1717), which he afterwards tried to suppress. He adapted from the Spanish a comedy, Love in a Veil (acted 1718, printed 1719), which gained him the friendship of Sir Richard Steele and of Robert Wilks. With Steele, however, he soon quarrelled. In 1723 he played without success in the title role of his tragedy, Sir Thomas Overbury (pr. 1724), and his Miscellaneous Poems were published by subscription in 1726. In 1727 he was arrested for the murder of James Sinclair in a drunken quarrel, and only escaped the death penalty by the intercession of Frances, countess of Hertford (d. 1754).

Savage was at his best as a satirist, and in The Author to be Let he published a quantity of scandal about his fellow-scribblers. Proud as he was, he was servile enough to supply Pope with petty gossip about the authors attacked in the Dunciad. His most considerable poem, The Wanderer (1729), shows the influence of Thomson's Seasons, part of which had already appeared. Savage tried without success to obtain patronage from Walpole, and hoped in vain to be made poet-laureate. Johnson states that he received a small income from Mrs Oldfield, but this seems to be fiction. In 1732 Queen Caroline settled on him a pension of £50 a year. Meanwhile he had quarrelled with Lord Tyrconnel, and at the queen's death was reduced to absolute poverty. Pope had been the most faithful of his friends, and had made him a small regular allowance. With others he now raised money to send him out of reach of his creditors. Savage went to Swansea, but he resented bitterly the conditions imposed by his patrons, and removed to Bristol, where he was imprisoned for debt. All his friends had ceased to help him except Pope, and in 1743 he, too, wrote to break off the connexion. Savage died in prison on the 1st of August 1743.

See Johnson's Life of Savage, and Notes and Queries as already quoted. He is the subject of a novel, Richard Savage (1842), by Charles Whitehead, illustrated by John Leech. Richard Savage, a play in four acts by J. M. Barrie and H. B. Marriott-Watson, was presented at an afternoon performance at the Criterion theatre, London, in 1891. The dramatists took considerable liberties with the facts of Savage's career. See also S. V. Makower, Richard Savage, a Mystery in Biography (1909).