BOOK REVIEW / Savage truths and mad scrofulous loners: Anthony Quinn admires Richard Holmes's study of a mysterious, poetic friendship: Dr Johnson & Mr Savage - Richard Holmes: Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 19.99

ONE OF the most mysterious episodes in Samuel Johnson's life was his brief but intimate friendship with the poet Richard Savage. The two men met sometime during the summer of 1737, probably in Greenwich, and parted company for good when Savage left London for Wales in July 1739. An intimate friendship, and an 'invisible' one too: there are no extant letters between the pair, no reference to each other in private journals, and - most bizarre of all - not a single account from an eyewitness who saw them in each other's company. And yet, as Richard Holmes reveals in this magnificent study, their friendship not only made a momentous impression on the young Johnson, but inspired a biography that revolutionised the whole process of life-writing. Holmes believes that biography, 'with its central tenet of empathy, is essentially a Romantic form', and it is part of the triumph of Dr Johnson and Mr Savage that this conviction is so imaginatively enacted.

Johnson's earliest official biographer, Sir John Hawkins, was baffled by the friendship. So too was Boswell, who found little to admire in Savage, 'for his character was marked by profligacy, insolence and ingratitude . . .' How could the great doctor have fallen in with this unworthy, dissolute, reckless character? Holmes looks for an explanation in Johnson's early career, when as a failed provincial schoolmaster he arrived in London to seek his fortune on Grub Street. In his late twenties he was, in Holmes's phrase, 'a figure of horrid fascination', anxious, brooding, and given to 'convulsive starts and odd gesticulations, which tended to excite at once surprise and ridicule'. This was not the majestic periwigged Johnson of later lore, but a scruffy, scrofulous loner who had already been hounded by insecurity and depression.

So it was that Johnson identified a kindred spirit on meeting Savage, an eloquent and charismatic spokesman for the dispossessed: he was, as Johnson first perceived him, the poet as Romantic outsider. One of the most popular anecdotes that sprung up around their association concerns the two men walking through the squares of London all one night, too poor to take lodgings but driven by the warmth and congeniality of their talk. When Johnson came to write Savage's Life in 1743 he dramatised the story as a series of nocturnal perambulations in which the poet is cast as a disaffected solitary, doomed to wander unregarded on the mean, depraved London streets. Johnson makes of Savage a new poetical archetype, the artist who has 'no social position, no influence on affairs, and literally no home'.

And, in terms of legitimacy, no mother, an absence which was to become the crowning obsession of Savage's life. He believed himself to be the bastard son of Lady Macclesfield and the fourth Earl Rivers, parentage for which there is tenable but by no means conclusive evidence. His putative mother in any case denied the connection outright, and as Savage claims, subjected him to a vicious and unnatural campaign of persecution, including a secret plot to ship him off to the plantations. Savage responded in kind by persistently abusing her in his poetry and delivering threats that were tantamount to blackmail. In 1729, Lady Macclesfield's nephew Lord Tyrconnel arranged a pension of pounds 200 per annum for Savage, which contains at least a suggestion of kinship. The truth remains unreachable, though Holmes concedes that the balance of proof weighs in the Lady's favour; she was not a woman of vindictive inclinations, indeed lived a lonely and rather unfortunate life as a widow. Johnson, however, was impressed by Savage's unbending conviction that he was nobly born; even under sentence of death he refused to change his story.

Danger was Savage's natural companion, and the most striking chapter in a life that courted and thrived upon notoriety concerned his trial for murder. One night in November 1727 Savage had been involved in a drunken affray in a coffee house near Charing Cross, during which he stabbed and killed a man. Holmes reconstructs the event quite brilliantly, turning the evidence this way and that, trying to pierce the veils of ambiguity which Johnson gallantly threw around the case in his effort to mitigate Savage's blame. And he detects a more sinister purpose to the poet's night-walks in lines from Johnson's poem, 'London':

Prepare for death, if here at Night you roam,

And sign your Will before you sup from home . . .

Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast,

Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.

Savage was found guilty and condemned to death, until the intercession of influential friends secured him a pardon from Queen Caroline. Released from the condemned cells at Newgate, he suddenly found himself much sought after, a fashionable roue who had eluded the hangman's noose. For a while he enjoyed the trappings of fame, and even a degree of prosperity.

It was not to last. Savage's restlessness, his extravagance, his sudden turns of mood were of a kind to alienate what sympathy he had previously garnered. Soon he was back to importuning friends for money and drinks, then scorning them if such support was refused or offered as charity. Arrogance went arm in arm with ingratitude.

It is here that Holmes identifies the crucial tension in Johnson's mind, torn as it was between the loyalty of the friend and the judgment of the biographer. For it would be a mistake to assume that Johnson was blind to Savage's faults; indeed, as Holmes observes, 'the most dramatic and ironic revelation' of Johnson's Life was the biographer's gradual realisation that Savage was 'morally incapable of friendship in its true sense'.

One sees Johnson's rueful realism push him towards the admission that his friend was, essentially, untrustworthy; though 'compassionate' by nature, once provoked Savage would take revenge 'with the utmost Acrimony . . . His Friendship was therefore of little Value, for though 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 discharged by the first Quarrel, from all Ties of Honour or Gratitude'.

There is something oddly moving about Johnson's clear-sightedness here, for we can sense probity struggling with a need to redeem his friend. This wasn't simply a case of charm overcoming all: Johnson was convinced of Savage's status as poetic conscience of the age, and if he was a spendthrift of his genius, then this too was a mark of his heroic fallibility. It compelled the doctor's loyalty and shaped his biography. Dr Johnson and Mr Savage is a biography of that biography, an exploration into the very nature of life-writing and all its projections, denials, evasions. Johnson's Life of Savage, published in 1744, the year after the latter's death in a Bristol prison, raises what Holmes calls 'the largest imaginative questions: how well can we know our fellow human beings; how far can we learn from someone else's struggles about our own; what do the intimate circumstances of one particular life tell us about human nature in general?' Holmes's dexterous shuffle of different perspectives lights the way towards answering those questions, but it is his wholehearted engagement with the innermost character of Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage that lends the book its compulsive and memorable force. After all, their story had already been told: it took something else - something like an understanding of failure, and the fear of failure - to bring it so vigorously back to life.

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