Thursday, March 31, 2016

Richard Holmes’ “Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage”

Richard Savage (1697 or 1698 – 1743) was a English poet who claimed to be the illegitimate son of an earl and a titled lady. There’s some support for the claim, although nothing really definitive. He made his name through a series of poems, including one entitled “The Bastard” that was aimed at embarrassing and humiliating his mother (which it did) and gaining him some hush money in the form of a pension (which it also did). In 1727, Savage was arrested with several friends and tried for the murder of a man in a coffeehouse which doubled as a brothel. Savage was found guilty but a few weeks later was pardoned by the king. His notoriety gained him access to all kinds of circles, both literary and aristocratic.

A drawing of Richard Savage
He also had a most unlikely friendship with the young Samuel Johnson, he of the great dictionary, subject of one of the world’s most famous biographies, and the man who helped save the plays of William Shakespeare from oblivion.

Savage was one of the first people Johnson met when he arrived in London in 1737. They made an odd pair of friends, the older and rather refined-looking Savage and the younger and physically ungainly Johnson. For almost two years, they spent considerable time together, especially walking London’s residential squares late at night. During those walks, Savage would describe his life, his parentage, his poetry, his passions, and his prejudices. When Johnson published “London,” some believed (and some academics still do) that the main character in the narrative poem was a thinly disguised Savage. Johnson later denied it, but the question remains. Certainly Savage was an influence on the poem.

Samuel Johnson
Savage eventually fell on hard times, left London (aided by friends like Alexander Pope) for Wales, and died in 1743 in the Bristol jail, where he had been imprisoned for three years for non-payment of debts. Johnson was commissioned to write Savage’s biography.

As described by Richard Holmes in Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, what Johnson created with this work was more than a standard biography. An Account of the Life of Richard Savage (1744) changed the nature of biographical writing, almost creating a new genre, something between biography and fiction. Johnson didn’t always get his facts right, but he wrote beautifully and entertainingly. Holmes also makes a good case for Johnson writing much of himself into the story of Savage.

Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, was clearly uncomfortable with Johnson’s relationship with Savage and tended to downplay Savage’s influence. Savage was looked down upon for the rest of the 18th century. But his influence on Johnson was clearly there, whatever qualms Boswell might have had.

The biography established Johnson. A year after its publication, he was commissioned to produce the dictionary. His growing reputation attracted a wide circle of admirers, and Johnson soon found himself part of the literary and social establishment.

Richard Holmes
Holmes, retired professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., is the author of numerous works on the Romantic poets and their era, including Shelley: The Pursuit (2003); The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (2010); Coleridge: Early Visions and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (2011 reissues of the earlier two-volume biography); The Romantic Poets and Their Circle (2014), a companion guide to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London; and two literary research memoirs, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1996) and Sidetracks (2011 reissue).

Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage is a fine account and informed reconstruction of the relationship between two men, one of whom slipped into obscurity but powerfully influenced the other and indirectly helped to establish his fame.


Lexicographer Samuel Johnson: Bookended by Poetry – at Tweetspeak Poetry. (This post is a revised version of the Tweetspeak Poetry article.)

Top illustration: An antique map of London in 1730.

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