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Dr Johnson & Mr Savage: Samuel Johnson's mysterious friendship with an obscure poet may hold the key not just to 18th-century London but to the rise of biography, Richard Holmes argues in a new book

Richard Holmes
Saturday 02 October 1993 23:02 BST

EVERYONE knows the great Dr Johnson, and scholars seem to know him in the minutest detail; almost no one knows anything definite about the obscure, minor poet Richard Savage. But Johnson and Savage were friends - intimate friends - in London for about two years in the 1730s. In those dark days in the city, dark for them both in many senses, the position was almost exactly reversed. Johnson was then unknown, and Savage was notorious. Thereby hangs a small but haunting mystery.

Sir John Hawkins, Johnson's earliest official biographer, thought the friendship the most inexplicable fact about Johnson's entire career. James Boswell, in a moment of rare agreement with Hawkins, thought much the same: 'Richard Savage: a man, of whom it is difficult to speak impartially, without wondering that he was for some time the intimate companion of Johnson; for his character was marked by profligacy, insolence, and ingratitude . . .'

One of the few facts that can be stated without contradiction about Savage was that he died in 1743. So one might begin with his obituary:

'Report has just reached us of the Demise of Mr Richard Savage, son of the late Earl Rivers, in the debtor's Confinements of Bristol Newgate gaol. Mr Savage will be recalled as the author of 'The Wanderer', convicted at the Old Bailey on a capital charge of Murder, and sometimes Volunteer Laureate to her Gracious Majesty Queen Caroline.

'Much obscurity attends the Passage of his early life. We have it on his own Authority that he was born in the parish of St Andrew's, Holborn, in 1698, the bastard Son of the present Mrs Anne Brett, then Lady Macclesfield (though she never acknowledged his Claim), and the late 4th Earl Rivers of Rivers House, Great Queen Street, Holborn. These Circumstances are obliquely referred to in his poem 'The Bastard'.

'As a frequenter of the Coffeehouse, the Salon, and the Green Room, Mr Savage found his Name connected with many of the illustrious Ladies of the day. In November 1727, in consequence of an Affray at Robinson's Coffeehouse, Charing Cross, he was arrested on a capital charge of Wounding and Murder, found guilty by a Grand Jury Court at the Old Bailey and condemned to suffer execution at Tyburn. His Case became celebrated among the Literati and Beau Monde of the capital, and in February 1728 he received the Royal Pardon. In relating his Misfortunes, Mr Savage always afterwards stated that his Mother, the former Lady Macclesfield, had unaccountably urged the Execution of his sentence against all representations of Mercy, and that only the gracious Intercession of her Majesty Queen Caroline saved him from the Hangman's Noose.

'Mr Savage thereafter tasted the delights of Celebrity, and applied precipitously for the position of Poet Laureate; which, failing to obtain, he appointed himself 'Volunteer Laureate' to the Queen thereby obtaining an Allowance of 50 pounds per annum until her majesty's death in 1737. But he shortly reverted to his previous condition of Poverty, and was thrown once more upon his Wits and his Friends. It is to be feared that some Nights were passed in the company of Beggars, Thieves, and other Denizens of Grub Street.

'Mr Savage had for some time revolved a plan of Retirement to the country. Through the Generosity of Mr Alexander Pope, a Subscription of 50 pounds per annum was organised among his friends, and in the summer of 1739 he departed for Wales, settling at Swansea and its Environs. But his Funds running low, Mr Savage returned to Bristol.

'In January 1743 he was arrested for Debt, and conveyed to the Newgate Prison in Bristol, where he received the personal Attentions of the Gaoler Mr Dagge, and died suddenly on 1st August 1743, being buried at Mr Dagge's expense in St Peter's Churchyard. Mr Savage never married, and had no known Offspring.'

The facts, and even the rumours, given here accurately represent

the public knowledge of Richard Savage's career at the time of his death, and are indeed historically correct as far as they go. But the obituary itself is a biographer's fiction. I have simply invented it.

A life like Savage's is mysterious in itself, but also mysterious in the way it came to be told and reinterpreted, one version layered upon another, like a piece of complex geology. Its stratified truth was not ready to emerge immediately on his own death, or even in his own century. It depends on the series of its tellers or excavators, of whom our imaginary obituarist of 1743 is one; the young literary novice Samuel Johnson - who assured his fame by writing Savage's Life in 1744 - is another; Johnson's own biographers, Sir John Hawkins (1787) and James Boswell (1791), are a third and fourth; and so on down a line of scholars, Victorian antiquarians and modern academics to our own time. Through these rich and varied workings of research and story-telling, the buried figure of Savage slowly rises back to life again.

Savage's life was seen from the start as containing the elements of a crime thriller. As his very name seemed to suggest, he was a killer- poet with a peculiar violence in his relationships. His story begins in an aristocratic divorce court, emerges in the world of publicity and the new monthly magazines, continues in a murder trial, touches upon fashion, politics and royalty, and ends suddenly and disgracefully in a debtors' prison. More than any other English poet since Christopher Marlowe, Savage's reputation was notorious and his true identity problematic. His 'case' was exemplary to his age, even if no one could quite agree what it exemplified, or who - ultimately - was to blame for its tragedy.

The subject of the book I came to write is the 'original' version, Johnson's Savage. It is the biography of a biography. It concerns the kind of human truth, poised between fact and fiction, which a biographer can obtain as he tells the story of another's life, and thereby makes it both his own (like a friendship) and the public's (like a betrayal). It asks what we can know, and what we can believe, and finally what we can love.

THERE HAS always been one vivid, popular legend of Johnson's unlikely friendship, enshrined in a particular anecdote that was passed lovingly around Johnson's later circle. The account describes how Johnson and Savage walked round the squares of London all one night, being too poor to afford either food or lodging but sustained by the passionate intimacy of their conversation. This story, in its various renditions, became symbolic of the Augustan writer's life in Grub Street, just as the story of Thomas Chatterton's death in a garret became symbolic of the Romantic poet for the later 18th century.

It is easy to see the appeal of such a story, with its link between poverty and genius. We can imagine the scene: the cobbled streets, the stinking rubbish, the tavern signs, the shuttered house-fronts; the moonlight and the dark alleys; the slumbering beggars, the footpads and the night watch; and the two central figures striding along, bent in conversation, convivial and ill-matched. Here is the huge, bony Johnson with his flapping horse-coat and dirty tie-wig, swinging the famous cudgel with which he once kept four muggers at bay until the night watch came up to rescue him; and here the small, elegant Savage with his black silk court- dress, his moth-eaten cloak, his tasselled sword and his split shoes which well-wishers were always trying to replace.

It is a night scene: these friends are outcasts from society, without money and without lodgings, talking

of poetry and politics and reforming the world, while the wealthy complacent city slumbers in oblivion. They are its better conscience, ever wakeful. It is a romantic, Quixotic, heroic or mock-heroic picture, depending on one's point of view.

When Johnson came to write Savage's Life in 1743, he put Savage's night-walking at the heart of the story but made no mention of himself as Savage's companion. Savage is essentially, and symbolically, alone. What Johnson did do was to place his description or evocation of Savage the Oucast Poet in 1737, immediately after the publication of Savage's poem 'Of Public Spirit', emphasising the link between the night-walks and the poetry. 'Of Public Spirit' considers how far the state is responsible for the poor, incapacitated or underprivileged in society; and whether the Whig policy of expatriation - forcible emigration to the new colonies in North America and Africa - can be morally justified. Is this 'outcasting' of men a proper expression of 'Public Spirit'?

Rising above his own situation, like the true poet, Savage touches on this general issue of social justice. But he also goes much further: he attacks the whole notion of colonisation itself. His two main targets are the East India trade in silks, spices, hardwoods and other luxury goods, and the West African trade in black slaves. Both produce their own kinds of oppression, and both make outcasts of men powerless within their system. He calls on the colonisers to be more respectful, more just, more generous: 'Do you the neighbouring, blameless Indian aid, / Culture what he neglects, not his invade'. The great Whig merchants, so much of whose personal wealth, houses, estates and even servants are drawn from the slave trade, defend themselves with the cry that 'while they enslave, they civilise'.

The black servant - especially as coach driver, table waiter or personal valet - was a familiar feature of smart 18th-century London society. Johnson himself later took on a black manservant, Frank Barber, originally as a wild and illiterate teenager who promptly ran away to sea. But this was one of Johnson's spiritual reparations: he took infinite trouble to trace the young man, buy him out of the service, educate him and provide for him and his family, and eventually made him an inheritor in his will. He became virtually an adopted son, ending his days in ease in Hampshire, corresponding genially with Boswell.

Savage saw enslavement with acute revulsion. He spoke of 'The nameless Tortures cruel Minds invent', which suggests at some level a personal identification: 'Why must I Afric's sable Children see / Vended for Slaves, though form'd by Nature free'. The clue to this identification may lie in the word 'cruel', which Johnson discovered had an almost talismanic significance for Savage's personal mythology. But the political implications for Savage of such imperial attitudes were frankly apocalyptic. The imperial London through which he and Johnson walked, like Cassandras in the night, might be destroyed by its own unjustly subject peoples. The wheel of fortune and of power would turn round; the outcasts would occupy the inner seats of power: 'Yes, Empire may revolve, give them the Day, / And Yoke may Yoke, and Blood may Blood repay.'

In this section of his biography, Johnson presents Savage as he first perceived him: as a spokesman for the outcast, the oppressed, the 'sons of Misery'. He is even the spokesman for the daughters of misery, the prostitutes of the city, the 'beauteous Wretches' who the 'nightly Streets annoy'. It is against this heroic moral background that Johnson places his portrait of Savage the Outcast Poet: 'He lodged as much by Accident as he dined and passed the Night, sometimes in mean Houses, which are set open at Night to any casual Wanderers, sometimes in Cellars among the Riot and Filth of the meanest and most profligate of the Rabble; and sometimes, when he had no Money to support even the Expences of these Receptacles, walked about the Streets till he was weary, and lay down in the Summer upon a Bulk, or in the Winter with his Associates in Poverty, among the Ashes of a Glass-house.'

Clearly this is not the experience of one bohemian summer night out in the West End. This is a dreadful, Dantesque repetition, at all seasons, and at many locations over London: alleys behind the Strand, off Covent Garden, beyond the Fleet Ditch, behind St Paul's, in Clerkenwell, off Smithfield, out in Spitalfields. The alternative forms of lodging open to Savage mark the stages of a humiliating decline from poverty to absolute indigence. The 'mean House' would be a penny-a-night public lodging or spike, with stinking dormitories of wooden beds. The 'Cellar' would be a single, dark, basement dossing- room of sacks and straw heaps, fouled with urine and vomit, populated by drunks, diseased and ageing prostitutes, lunatics, tramps and psychopaths. The 'Bulk' was a low, wooden stall attached to a shop- front on which fresh market produce was displayed by day and left to rot

at night: old vegetables at Covent Garden, old fish at Billingsgate, old meat at Smithfield.

The 'Glass-house', last of all, was a small factory (like a bakery or kiln) where carriage-glass, windowpanes, water jugs, wine glasses, decorative buttons, cane-tops and other fancy ornaments were melted and cast in coal-fired ovens, found all over the East End, with their brick chimneys billowing smoke and their backyards full of warm grey ash and clinker. Here even a complete down-and-out could keep warm (just as the modern tramp sleeps on a ventilation grille), though rising ash-grey as a ghost in the morning. Thus Johnson charts Savage's decline in the infernal city night; falling as low as, if not lower than, those whose rights he 'asserted' as a poet.

Johnson writes with an immediacy that suggests familiarity - if not first-hand knowledge - of such 'Receptacles' of the London night. He is rhetorically present, giving plain and moving testimony. Pathos turns to anger in a climax of outrage: 'On a Bulk, in a Cellar, or in a Glasshouse among Thieves and Beggars, was to be found the Author of the Wanderer, the Man of exalted Sentiments, extensive Views and curious Observations, the Man whose Remarks on Life might have assisted the Statesman, whose Ideas of Virtue might have enlightened the Moralist, whose Eloquence might have influenced Senates, and whose Delicacy might have polished Courts.'

The noble cadences into which Johnson finally lifts this passage suggest that, for his young listener, Savage's night-talk in the streets sometimes approached the condition of poetry. It is a public poetry, which should have concerned the 'Moralist', the 'Statesman', the men in power at Parliament and at Court. But because of Savage's outcast state, his poverty and humiliating sufferings, it is poetry that is not heard, not acknowledged, by those in power: 'Of Public Spirit' sold exactly 72 copies. Savage is, for young Johnson, the poet who has no social position, no influence on affairs, and literally no home - a new poetical archetype. Johnson had glimpsed in the back streets the first stirrings of the new Romantic age.

WHEN JOHNSON met Savage, he met a version of his own literary future: a poet trapped in the toils of London, driven by unfulfilled ambitions, washed up by the tides of fortune and already dreaming of escape. He saw a whole curve of possible destiny: poverty, persecution, hack work, an incorrigible refusal

to be beaten or humiliated. He

was entranced by Savage's stories,

fascinated by his poetry and weirdly beguiled by his battered elegance. But, with his moral strength and intellect, he was also cautious of this faintly sinister, dandified Mephistopheles. He held back. He loved Savage - every grave excuse for him in the Life, every smiling complicity, makes this clear - but he also finally tried to judge him. When they met as friends they were poised - the biographer and his subject - as if for a duel.

When and where the first meeting between the two men took place is, like so much else in Savage's life, obscure and puzzlingly disputed. (Johnson himself is silent on the point; Hawkins is anxious to establish it in 1737; Boswell is equally anxious to put off the evil moment as late as possible in 1738.) But Johnson's first physical impression of Savage, which seems to have been in the street, was certainly something of a shock. Neither the voluble, aggressive, quick-moving wit darting between coffee tables, nor the vain, extravagant, self-dramatising defendant at the Old Bailey was quite recognisable in this gaunt, slow, slyly amusing apparition:

'He was of a 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, but which upon 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.'

For Johnson, the man whom he had first seen as a Virgilian guide through the dark city was also a man enclosed and entranced by its nightmare. Savage's night-walks were symptomatic of his dreamlike, labyrinthine journey through his own existence. He sleep-walked to his own disaster, never recognising the endless, somnambular, repetitious pattern. These circular, traumatised steps become one of the most powerful images in the later part of Johnson's biography.

Johnson brooded uneasily on the ritual pattern and symbolism in Savage's behaviour: the darkness, the intoxication, the amnesia, the self-circling treadmill steps, the dancing seductive fantasies. In a striking phrase, he spoke of Savage having 'lulled his Imagination' with 'ideal Opiates', as if poetry were a kind of self-administered drug. It was a notion, a terror, full of Romantic premonition.

If Johnson came to see Savage's failings so clearly, as their intimacy deepened in the autumn of 1738, why did he continue to defend him retrospectively in the Life? This is the question that evidently haunted Boswell - particularly since it was to Boswell that the sacred baton of friendship was eventually passed, as well as the sacred duty of the biographer to tell the truth as candidly as possible. For it is a mistake to believe that Johnson did not penetrate deeply into Savage's vanity, delusions and opportunism. The most dramatic and ironic revelation of the Life is that Johnson gradually realised in the daily and nightly round of their Grub Street existence together in 1738 that Savage was morally incapable of friendship in its true sense. Savage could be impetuously kind and generous (especially to those worse off than himself), but he was always fickle and untrustworthy. Such a perception, which seems to challenge the whole basis of their intimacy, is given by Johnson with unflinching, melancholy realism:

'He was compassionate both by Nature and Principle, and always ready to perform Offices of Humanity; but when he was provoked, and very small Offences were sufficient to provoke him, he would prosecute his Revenge with the utmost Acrimony till his Passion had subsided. 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; and would betray those Secrets which in the Warmth of Confidence had been imparted . . .'

This rueful and damaging admission deepens our whole sense of Johnson's powers as a biographer. He is not taken in by Savage, but still extends sympathy and insight. He accepts this truth about Savage's character, but he sees it is not the whole truth. Observing Savage in the coffee houses and taverns, Johnson saw a creative faculty, a generosity of spirit and an instinct of engagement with life, that deeply impressed him and which he was to emulate himself for the rest of his career.

The difference between the two degrees of knowledge - the love of the friend and the judgement of the biographer - accounts for the underlying psychological drama of Johnson's Life of Savage. What he finally saw as the moral meaning of Savage's existence lay in the capacity of even a flawed man to struggle nobly against the misfortunes of life.

ACCORDING to Pope's letters, there was a ferryman called Holmes who ran the boats up the Thames from Hungerford Stairs, near Charing Cross, to Richmond. I identify with this shadowy figure who carried goods and messages along the river which runs so powerfully through Savage's story. The biographer is a kind of ferryman, even a kind of Charon, crossing back and forth between the Past and Present, over the dark river of Oblivion.

It must never be forgotten that the story of the Johnson-Savage friendship lacks the normal biographical sources. There are no authenticated letters between the two men, no mention of each other in private journals, no eyewitness account of them in each other's company. It was an invisible friendship.

No doubt Johnson changed and matured greatly in the years before he met Boswell at Davies bookshop in Covent Garden in 1763. But the friendships formed in our early years are sometimes the most profound and the most revealing, and this friendship is the one that I believe influenced Johnson for the rest of his life as a writer. Previous biographers, including Boswell, have made the central mystery of Savage turn on the question of his birthright. This has obscured what I believe has always been the real enigma: why young Johnson was so fascinated by Savage that he was instinctively prepared to believe him. Something about Savage, and his ability to exploit or live out the image of the unrecognised and persecuted man of genius, held Johnson - and Johnson's age - in a grip of guilty enchantment.

I believe that biography itself, with its central tenet of empathy, is essentially a Romantic form, and that Johnson's friendship with Savage first crystallised its perils and possibilities. In the process of transforming that friendship into a Life, Johnson brought a new and recognisably modern English genre into being. It was no longer based on classical models - Plutarch, Tacitus, Sallust - though Johnson would still claim their authority for his use of intimate detail to display character. It now drew on popular and indigenous English forms, of varying degrees of respectability. The scandal romance, the sensational Newgate confession, the sentimental ballad of folk archetypes, the journalistic investigation and profile, the theatrical comedy of manners and the revelations of courtroom drama: all these shaped the narrative forms of the new biography, and continue to affect it to this day.

In Johnson's hands, biography became a rival to the novel. It began to pose 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? This seems to me the historic significance of Johnson's Life of Richard Savage.

Whenever modern biographers set out on the long journey of research and writing, somewhere behind them walk the companionable figures of these two 18th-century presences, talking and arguing through a labyrinth of dark streets, trying to find a recognisable human truth together.

Richard Holmes's 'Dr Johnson & Mr Savage' is published next week by Hodder & Stoughton at pounds 19.99.

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