Richard Savage remains a shadowy figure until the moment of his arrest for murder, in a back alley near Charing Cross, in November 1727. At that moment he steps into history: like a character walking out on to a brightly lit stage, into the glare of long-sought publicity. The public record of his life now begins: ‘the man in black’, as he is identified by a witness at the trial, is accused of killing James Sinclair in a brothel brawl at Robinson’s Coffeehouse with a single, nine-inch sword-thrust, and wounding the maid Mary Rock on the head as she tried to prevent his escape. He enters history as a man on trial for his life; and the whole of his biography retains that element of procès verbal, a cross-questioning of identity, motive, character and extenuating circumstance, until seventeen years later it finds its most powerful advocate in the young Samuel Johnson whose superb, rhetorical speech for the defence forms the first, and perhaps the greatest, of the Lives of the Poets.
Up to that moment in 1727, when Savage was probably aged thirty, the definite facts of his life, as the sources for them, are minimal. Not even a portrait exists. The circumstances of his birth in Holborn are obscure; his claim to be the illegitimate and persecuted son of Lady Anne Macclesfield and the late Lord Rivers is doubtful. He was the author of two plays and of a handful of published poems. He had associated with the great journalist Richard Steele and worked anonymously for Alexander Pope collecting scurrilous material for The Dunciad. He was the subject of three articles in Aaron Hill’s literary magazine The Plain Dealer, in 1724, characteristically pressing his claim for recognition and financial support from Lady Macclesfield. Here he had struck the first of his elegant, Romantic poses, drawing with something like genius on the established eighteenth-century archetype of the Distressed Poet – der armer Poet – celebrated by Hogarth and many others, already pressing his identity into new biographical form:
Hopeless, abandoned, aimless, and oppress’d
Lost to Delight, and every Way, distress’d;
Cross his cold Bed, in Wild Disorder thrown,
Thus sigh’d Alexis, friendless, and alone –
‘Why do I breathe? – What Joy can Being give?
When she, who gave me Life, forgets I live!’