JOHN ARMSTRONG was born in Roxburghshire, in the parish of Castleton, of which his father was the clergyman. He completed his education, and took a medical degree, at the university of Edinburgh, with much reputation, in the year 1732. Amidst his scientific pursuits, he also cultivated literature and poetry. One of his earliest productions in verse, was an Imitation of the Style of Shakspere, which received the approbation of the poets Young and Thomson; although humbler judges will perhaps be at a loss to perceive in it any striking likeness to his great original. Two other sketches, also purporting to be imitations of Shakspere, are found among his works. They are the fragments of an unfinished tragedy. One of them, the Dream of Progne, is not unpleasing. In the other, he begins the description of a storm by saying, that "The sun went down in wrath, the skies foam'd brass."
It is uncertain in what year he came to London; but in 1735 he published an anonymous pamphlet, severely ridiculing the quackery of untaught practitioners. He dedicated this performance to Joshua Ward, John Moore, and others, whom he styles "the Antacademic philosophers, and the generous despisers of the schools." As a physician he never obtained extensive practice. This he himself imputed to his contempt of the little artifices, which, he alleges, were necessary to popularity: by others, the failure was ascribed to his indolence and literary avocations; and there was probably truth in both accounts. A disgraceful poem, entitled, The Oeconomy of Love, which he published after coming to London, might have also had its share in impeding his professional career. He corrected the nefarious production, at a later period of his life, betraying at once a consciousness of its impurity, and a hankering after its reputation. So unflattering were his prospects, after several years residence in the metropolis, that he applied (it would seem without success) to be put on the medical staff of the forces, then going out to the West Indies. His Art of Preserving Health appeared in 1744, and justly fixed his poetical reputation. In 1746 he was appointed physician to the hospital for sick soldiers, behind Buckingham House. In 1751 he published his poem on Benevolence; in 1753 his Epistle on Taste; and in 1758 his prose Sketches by Launcelot Temple. Certainly none of these productions exalted the literary character which he had raised to himself by his Art of Preserving Health. The poems Taste and Benevolence are very insipid. His Sketches have been censured more than they seem to deserve for "oaths and exclamations, and for a constant struggle to say smart things." They contain indeed some expressions which might be wished away, but these are very few in number; and several of his essays are plain and sensible, without any effort at humour.
In 1760 he was appointed physician to the forces that went over to Germany. It is at this era of his life that we should expect its history to be the most amusing, and to have furnished the most important relics of observation, from his having visited a foreign country which was the scene of war, and where he was placed, by his situation, in the midst of interesting events. It may be pleasing to follow heroes into retirement; but we are also fond of seeing men of literary genius amidst the action and business of life. Of Dr. Armstrong in Germany, however, we have no other information than what is afforded by his epistle to Wilkes, entitled Day, which is by no means a bright production, and chiefly devoted to subjects of eating. With Wilkes he was, at that time, on terms of friendship; but, their cordiality was afterward dissolved by politics. Churchill took a share in the quarrel, and denounced our author as a monster of ingratitude toward Wilkes, who had been his benefactor; and Wilkes, by subsequently attacking Armstrong in the Daily Advertiser, showed that he did not disapprove of the satirist's reproaches. To such personalities Armstrong might have replied in the words of Prior,
To John I owed great obligation,
But John unhappily thought fit
To publish it to all the nation;
Sure John and I are more than quit.
But though his temper was none of the mildest, he had the candour to speak with gratitude of Wilkes's former kindness, and acknowledged that he was indebted to him for his appointment in the army.
After the peace he returned to London, where his practice, as well as acquaintance, was confined to a small circle of friends; but among whom he was esteemed as a man of genius. From the originality of his mind, as well as from his reading, and more than ordinary taste in the fine arts, his conversation is said to have been richly entertaining. Yet if the character which is supposed to apply to him in the Castle of Indolence describes him justly, his colloquial delightfulness must have been intermittent. In 1770 he published a collection of his Miscellanies, containing a new prose piece, The Universal Almanack, and The Forced Marriage, a tragedy which had been offered to Garrick, but refused. The whole was ushered in by a preface, full of arrogant defiance to public opinion. "He had never courted the public," he said, "and if it was true what he had been told, that the best judges were on his side, he desired no more in the article of fame as a writer." There was a deal of matter in this collection, that ought to have rendered its author more modest. The Universal Almanack is a wretched production, to which the objections of his propensity to swearing, and abortive efforts at humour, apply more justly than to his Sketches; and his tragedy the Forced Marriage, is a mortuum caput of insipidity. In the following year he visited France and Italy, and published a short, but splenetic account of his tour, under his old assumed name of Launcelot Temple. His last production was a volume of Professional Essays, in which he took more trouble to abuse quacks than became his dignity, and showed himself a man to whom the relish of life was not improving, as its feast drew toward a close. He died in September, 1779, of a hurt, which he accidentally received in stepping out of a carriage; and, to the no small surprize of his friends, left behind him more than £3000, saved out of a very moderate income, arising principally from his half-pay.
His Art of Preserving Health is the most successful attempt, in our language, to incorporate material science with poetry. Its subject had the advantage of being generally interesting; for there are few things that we shall be more willing to learn, either in prose or verse, than the means of preserving the outward bulwark of all other blessings. At the same time, the difficulty of poetically treating a subject, which presented disease in all its associations, is one of the most just and ordinary topics of his praise. Of the triumphs of poetry over such difficulty, he had no doubt high precedents, to show that strong and true delineations of physical evil are not without an attraction of fearful interest and curiosity to the human mind; and that the enjoyment, which the fancy derives from conceptions of the bloom and beauty of healthful nature, may be heightened, by contrasting them with the opposite pictures of her mortality and decay. Milton had turned disease itself into a subject of sublimity, in the vision of Adam, with that intensity of the fire of genius, which converts whatever materials it meets with into its aliment: and Armstrong, though his powers were not Miltonic, had the courage to attempt what would have repelled a more timid taste. His Muse might be said to show a professional intrepidity in choosing the subject; and, like the physician who braves contagion, (if allowed to prolong the simile,) we may add, that she escaped, on the whole, with little injury from the trial. By the title of the poem, the author judiciously gave his theme a moral as well as a medical interest. He makes the influence of the passions an entire part of it. By professing to describe only how health is to be preserved, and not how it is to be restored, he avoids the unmanageable horrors of clinical detail; and though he paints the disease, wisely spares us its pharmaceutical treatment. His course through the poem is sustained with lucid management and propriety. What is explained of the animal economy is obscured by no pedantic jargon, but made distinct, and, to a certain degree, picturesque to the conception. We need not indeed be reminded how small a portion of science can be communicated in poetry; but the practical maxims of science, which the Muse has stamped with imagery and attuned to harmony, have so far an advantage over those which are delivered in prose, that they become more agreeable and permanent acquisitions of the memory. If the didactic path of his poetry is, from its nature, rather level, he rises above it, on several occasions, with a considerable strength of poetical feeling. Thus, in recommending the vicinity of woods around a dwelling, that may shelter us from the winds, whilst it enables us to hear their music, he introduces the following pleasing lines:
Oh! when the growling winds contend, and all
The sounding forest fluctuates in the storm;
To sink in warm repose, and hear the din
Howl o'er the steady battlements, delights
Above the luxury of vulgar sleep.
In treating of diet he seems to have felt the full difficulty of an humble subject, and to have sought to relieve his precepts and physiological descriptions, with all the wealth of allusion and imagery which his fancy could introduce. The appearance of a forced effort is not wholly avoided, even where he aims at superior strains, in order to garnish the meaner topics, as when he solemnly addresses the Naiads of all the rivers in the world, in rehearsing the praises of a cup of water. But he closes the book in a strain of genuine dignity. After contemplating the effects of Time on the human body, his view of its influence dilates, with easy and majestic extension, to the universal structure of nature; and he rises from great to greater objects with a climax of sublimity.
What does not fade? the tower that long had stood
The crush of thunder and the warring winds,
Shook by the slow, but sure destroyer, Time,
Now hangs in doubtful ruins o'er its base.
And flinty pyramids, and walls of brass,
Descend: the Babylonian spires are sunk;
Achaia, Rome, and Egypt, moulder down.
Time shakes the stable tyranny of thrones,
And tottering empires crash by their own weight.
This huge rotundity we treat grows old;
And all those worlds that roll around the sun,
The sun himself shall die.
He may, in some points, be compared advantageously with the best blank verse writers of the age; and he will be found free from their most striking defects. He has not the ambition of Akenside, nor the verbosity of Thomson. On the other hand, shall we say that he is equal in genius to either of those poets! Certainly, his originality is nothing like Thomson's; and the rapture of his heroic sentiments is unequal to that of the author of the Pleasures of the Imagination. For, in spite of the too frequently false pomp of Akenside, we still feel, that he has a devoted moral impulse, not to be mistaken for the cant of morality, a zeal in the worship of Virtue, which places her image in a high and hallowed light. Neither has his versification the nervous harmony of Akenside's, for his habit of pausing almost uniformly at the close of the line, gives an air of formality to his numbers. His vein has less mixture than Thomson's: but its ore is not so fine. Sometimes we find him trying his strength with that author, in the same walk of description, where, though correct and concise, he falls beneath the poet of The Seasons in rich and graphic observation. He also contributed to The Castle of Indolence some stanzas, describing the diseases arising from sloth, which form rather an useful back-ground to the luxuriant picture of the Castle, than a prominent part of its enchantment.
On the whole, he is likely to be remembered as a poet of judicious thoughts and correct expression; and, as far as the rarely successful applications of verse to subjects of science can be admired, an additional merit must be ascribed to the hand which has reared poetical flowers on the dry and difficult ground of philosophy.