DR. JOHN ARMSTRONG, both a poet and physician, was born at Castleton, in Roxburghshire, where his father was minister, about 1709. After the usual course of school education, he studied physic at Colmburgh, and took his degree at that university, with uncommon reputation, in 1732.
Soon after his graduation he went to London, and commenced physician; but never obtained any considerable share of practice. As an author, he was more successful. and in 1735 he published, anonymously, an Essay for Abridging the Study of Physic, inscribed to the then popular quacks, which would do no discredit to Lucian, in whose spirit it is written.
Passing over some professional works, we have to notice his Oeconomy of Love, a poem evincing genius, but of the most licentious tendency. The Art of Preserving Health, however, which appeared in 1744, atones for the former misdirection of his muse, and ranks him among the first didactic poets of this nation. Whether we attend to the precepts of the physician, or the magic charms of harmony and diction, we must allow that the fame of Dr. Armstrong is placed on an unperishable base, by this grand work.
Two years after, he was appointed a physician to the hospital for sick and lame soldiers; and at intervals produced some exquisite pieces of poetry and prose, though far inferior to his Art of Preserving Health. His Sketches, under the assumed title of Launcelot Temple, Esq. possess great merit, and are still read with pleasure.
Being appointed physician to the army in 1760, he attended it in Germany, where he wrote a poem called Day, addressed to John Wilkes, Esq. In this he hazarded a reflection on Churchill, which drew on him the vengeance of that sturdy satirist, and interrupted the connection that had long subsisted between him and the pseudo patriot of his time.
After the peace of Paris 1763, Dr. Armstrong returned to London, and divided his time between the duties of his profession and the amusements of literature. In 1770 be published an agreeable collection of Miscellanies; and three years after his Medical Essays, towards the conclusion of which, he accounts for his limited practice as a physician, which he ascribes to a "ticklish state of spirits, and a distempered excess of sensibility."
He died in 1779, in comfortable circumstances, a proof of his temperate and frugal habits, for his income was always limited.
The character of Armstrong appears to have been amiable and respectable. He was the intimate friend of Thomson, and was well acquainted with many of the most distinguished literary and scientific persons of his time. As a poet, his compositions are unequal, some being polished to the highest degree, and exhibiting all the marks of genius, while others sink even below mediocrity, and scarcely appear the productions of the same muse.
Many of his poems are lost, and many be destroyed. To the latter, it is probable a much better reception would have been given by the majority of readers, than ever attended what he published. But he never courted the public: he wrote chiefly for his own amusement; and because he found it an agreeable and innocent way of sometimes spending an idle hour. He always most heartily despised the opinion of the mobility, from the lowest to the highest; and if it is true what he has sometimes been told, that the best judges are on his side, he desires no more in the article of fame and renown as a writer. If the best judges of this age honour him with their approbation, all the worst too of the next will favour him with theirs. In most of his writings he discovers a sound understanding and a good taste, and in some displays strong genius, and a vivid fancy.