The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 30. Richard Savage

Before turning to the numerus numeri—the tail of the list of these things seldom rich or rare, but, somehow, ambered in literary history—we must deal with one who, at some times, and to not a few persons, would have seemed worthy of a much more dignified place in the story. But, to the present writer, Richard Savage is as mediocre a mediocrist as Swift could possibly have found among his own contemporaries. The famous romance of his birth and maltreatment seems to be now almost unanimously disbelieved by historical critics: and, though his memory must always retain the great and inalienable privilege of Johnson’s friendship, and of the Life which that friendship prompted, these can add nothing to his individual and intrinsic literary value. On the other hand, neither is it affected by the circumstance that, apart from Johnson’s testimony to his friend, and even from some dropped hints in that testimony, we should be apt to think him an impostor, a libeller and something of a ruffian. We have only to do with the works and, when we turn to them, what do we find? The Wanderer may not be the worst of the descriptive didactic verse-tractates of its century; but, to the usual inquiry whether, as poems, they have any particular reason for existence, and the usual answer in the negative, there has to be added, in this case, the discovery that it has really no plan at all, and (the words are Johnson’s own, and the sentiment is not denied by him) is a “heap of shining materials thrown together by accident.” But we must ask, further, “Do the materials really shine?” and, if so, “with what sort of lustre?” The answer, one fears, must be, “With that of tinsel at best.” The Bastard has a false air of pathos and indignation which will not survive careful reading. Neither passion nor poetry, but merely rhetoric, supplies the phrasing; and, long before you reach the end of the poem, you have been prepared to find it turn into a begging letter to queen Caroline. The Volunteer Laureat odes to the same royal personage are fully exposed to the stock satire on the regularly commissioned utterances of that kind of muse; and the lesser pieces are quite insignificant. One famous line of The Bastard,

  • No tenth transmitter of a foolish face,
  • is not uncommonly attributed to Pope; and, perhaps, ignorance has here hit upon the truth, for Pope was very good to Savage. But it might well be a “windfall of the Muses” to anyone who, with his wits about him—and Savage certainly had his—had read either Pope himself, or, better still, Dryden.