The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 10. The Life of Savage
The early series of biographies was followed by the elaborate life of a poet whom Johnson had known intimately, and whose character required protection from the insults and calumnies which it invited. Richard Savage died in the prison of Bristol at the beginning of August, 1743; and, in the number of The Gentleman’s Magazine for the same month, Johnson announced, in an unsigned letter, that a biography of him was in preparation. He wrote it with his usual speed—once he wrote as much as forty-eight printed pages at a sitting—and had it published in February, 1744. It is a work of remarkable and varied interest, and throws light on a period of Johnson’s career of which we know too little. They had suffered poverty together and forgotten it in their companionship; they had spent whole nights in the streets when their combined resources could not find them a shelter; and the description of Savage’s fortunes reflects what Johnson had himself endured, and might have still to endure. He was attracted to Savage by the story of his life, on which research had not yet cast any doubt, by his shrewd knowledge of human nature, by his social skill and experience and by his talent as a writer. Savage was eleven years older than Johnson, and in his varied life had much to tell. But the chief attraction was Savage’s own character. His great capacities could not save him from his undoing. He was self-indulgent, petulant, aggressive and ungrateful; there was excuse for the indifference or resentment of those who had once been benefactors. All this Johnson brings out clearly in a narrative which, when it leans from impartiality, leans to the side of friendship. He related everything as he knew it, with no suggestion of censure, but with generous sympathy. The Life of Savage is one of those rare biographies which, by their perfect sincerity, tell us as much of the character of the author as of the man described. He included it, later, with only slight alterations, in The Lives of the Poets. It had been an adequate expression of his feelings when it was written, and he wisely decided to let well enough alone. But it is a different Life from the other Lives, and differs from them in more than scale and method. It is the study of a personality rather than of a poet, though at no time would Johnson have tried to make such a distinction. The criticism of Savage’s works is the least part of it, and has not yet all the writer’s easy mastery. The style, too, which, at its best, is as good as it ever was to be, sometimes lacks its later certainty and precision. And the frequent repetition of the same ideas, though always in different language, shows a desire to give in full the content of a full mind rather than to represent it by selection. The new setting of The Life of Savage invites a comparison which proves that Johnson’s abilities were strengthening and maturing to his seventieth year. Yet he never revealed himself more fully than in this early tribute to the memory of a difficult friend.