JOHN ARMSTRONG, son of a Scotch minister, was born in the parish of Castleton, in Roxburghshire. The date of his birth has not been ascertained, nor is there any thing known concerning the earlier part of his education. The first we hear of it is, that he took a degree in medicine at Edinburgh, on the fourth of February, 1732; on which occasion he published his Thesis, as usual, and chose De Tabe Purulenta for the subject of it. A copy of a Latin letter, which he sent to Sir Hans Sloane with this essay, is said to be in the British Museum. In an advertisement prefixed to some verses which he calls Imitations of Shakspeare, he informs the reader that the first of them was just finished when Thomson's Winter made its appearance. This was in 1726, when he was, he himself says, very young. Thomson having heard of this production by a youth, who was of the same country with himself, desired to see it, and was so much pleased with the attempt, that he put it into the hands of Aaron Hill, Mallet, and Young. With Thomson, further than in the subject, there is no coincidence. The manner is a caricature of Shakspeare's.
In 1735, we find him in London, publishing a humorous pamphlet, entitled An Essay for abridging the Study of Physic, which, though he did not profess himself the writer, Mr. Nichols says, he can, on the best authority, assert to be his. In two years after he published a Medical Essay. This was soon followed by a licentious poem, which I have not seen, and the title of which I do not think it necessary to record. — While thus employed, it was not to be expected that he should rise to much eminence in his profession. The dying man does not willingly see by his couch one who has recently disgraced himself by an open act of profligacy. In January 1741, he solicited Dr. Birch to use his influence with Mead in recommending him to the appointment of Physician to the Forces which were then going to the West Indies. It does not appear that this application was successful; but in five years more, (February 1746,) he was nominated one of the Physicians to the Hospital for Invalid Soldiers behind Buckingham House; and in 1760, Physician to the Army in Germany. Meantime (in 1744) he had published his Art of Preserving Health, a didactic poem, that soon made its way to notice, and which, by the judiciousness of the precepts, might have tended to raise some opinion of his medical skill. At the beginning he addresses Mead:—
—Beloved by all the graceful arts
And long the favourite of the healing powers.
He had now become intimate with Thomson, to whose Castle of Indolence he contributed the three stanzas which conclude the first canto. One of the alterations made in them by Thomson is not for the better. He had written—
And here the gout, half tyger, half a snake,
Raged with a hundred teeth, a hundred stings;
which was changed to—
The sleepless gout here counts the crowing cocks,
A wolf now gnaws him, now a serpent stings.
When Thomson was seized with the illness of which he died Armstrong was one of those who were sent for to attend him.
In 1751, he published Benevolence, an Epistle to Eumenes; and in 1763, Taste, an Epistle to a Young Critic. In the next year, he wrote the Forced Marriage, a tragedy, which Garrick did not think fitted for the stage. It was printed in 1770, with such of his other writings as he considered worthy of being collected. In this book, which he entitled Miscellanies, in two volumes, first appeared the second part of Sketches or Essays on Various Subjects, by Launcelot Temple, Esq.; the former had been published in 1768. Wilkes was supposed to have contributed something to these lively trifles, which, under an air of impertinent levity, are sometimes marked by originality and discernment. His poem called Day, an epistle which he had addressed to Wilkes in 1761, was not admitted by the author to take its place among the rest. For the dispute which gave rise to this omission he was afterwards sorry; and in his last illness declared, that what he had got in the army he owed to the kindness of Wilkes; and that although he had been rash and hasty, he still retained a due sense of gratitude. In attacking Wilkes, he contrived to exasperate Churchill also, who was not to be provoked with impunity, and who revenged himself in the Journey. In 1771, he published a Short Ramble through some parts of France and Italy. In the neighbourhood of Leghorn he passed a fortnight with Smollett, to whom he was always tenderly attached. Of his book I regret the more that I cannot speak from my own knowledge, because the journey which it narrates is said to have been made in the society of Mr. Fuseli, with whom it is not easy to suppose that any one could have travelled without profiting by the elegance and learning of his companion. I have no better means of bringing my reader acquainted with some Medical Essays which he published in 1773; but from the manner in which they are spoken of in the Biographical Dictionary, it is to be feared that they did not conduce to his reputation or advancement. He died in September, 1779, in consequence, as it is said, of a contusion which he received when he was getting into a carriage. His friends were surprised to find he had laid by three thousand pounds, which had been saved chiefly out of his half-pay.
Armstrong appears to have been good-natured and indolent, little versed in what is called the way of the world, and, with an eagerness of ostentation which looks like the result of mortified vanity, a despiser of the vulgar, whether found among the little or the great.
His Art of Preserving Health is the only production by which he is likely to be remembered. The theme which he has chosen is one, in which no man who lives long does not at some time or other feel an interest; and he has handled it with considerable skill. In the first Book, on Air, he has interwoven very pleasing descriptions both of particular places and of situations in general, with reference to the effects they may be supposed to have on health. The second, which treats of Diet, is necessarily less attractive, as the topic is less susceptible of ornament; yet in speaking of water, he has contrived to embellish it by some lines, which are, perhaps, the finest in the poem.
Now come, ye Naiads, to the fountains lead;
Now let me wander through your gelid reign.
I burn to view th' enthusiastic wilds
By mortals else untrod. I hear the din
Of waters thund'ring o'er the ruin'd cliffs.
With holy reverence I approach the rocks
Whence glide the streams renown'd in ancient song.
Here from the desart, down the rumbling steep,
First springs the Nile: here bursts the sounding Po
In angry waves: Euphrates hence devolves
A mighty flood to water half the East:
And there in Gothic solitude reclin'd,
The cheerless Tanais pours his hoary urn.
What solemn twilight! What stupendous shades
Enwrap these infant floods! Through every nerve
A sacred horror thrills, a pleasing fear
Glides o'er my frame. The forest deepens round;
And more gigantic still th' impending trees
Stretch their extravagant arms athwart the gloom.
Are these the confines of another world?
A land of Genii? Say, beyond these wilds
What unknown regions! If indeed beyond
Aught habitable lies.
This has more majesty, and more to fill the imagination, than the corresponding paragraph in Thomson's Autumn.
Say then where lurk the vast eternal springs, &c.—771.
Yet it is inferior in beauty to some verses in a Latin poem by a writer who is now living.
Quippe sub immensis terrae penetralibus altae
Hiscunt in vastum tenebree: magnarum ibi princeps
Labitur undarum Oceanus, quo patre liquoris
Omnigeni latices et mollis lentor aquai
Profluxere, nova nantes restate superne
Aerii rores nebularum, et liquidus imber.
Fama est perpetuos illinc se erumpere fontes,
Florigerum Ladona, et lubrica vitra Selemni,
Crathidaque, imbriferamque Lycaeis vallibus Hagno,
Et gelidam Panopin et Peirenen lacrymosam,
Illinc et rapido amnes fluere et mare magnum.
In the third book, he once more breathes freely, and in recounting the various kinds of exercise by which the human frame may be invigorated, his poetic faculty again finds room to play. Joseph Warton, in his Essay on Pope, has justly commended the Episode on the Sweating Sickness, with which it concludes. In the fourth and last, on the Passions, he seems to have grown weary of his task; for he has here less compression and less dignity.
His verse is much more compact than Thomson's, whom he resembles most in the turn of the expression; although he has aimed now and then, but with an ill-assured and timid hand, at a Miltonic boldness in the numbers or the phrase. When he takes occasion to speak of the river with which his remembrances in early life were associated, he has, contrary to his usual custom, indulged himself with enlarging on his prototype.
Thomson had mentioned incidentally the Tweed and the Jed:
—The Tweed, pure parent stream,
Whose pastoral banks first heard my Doric reed,
With sylvan Jed! thy tributary brook. — Autumn, 889.
He has thus expanded it:—
—Such the stream,
On whose Arcadian banks I first drew air,
Liddal; till now, except in Doric lays
Tun'd to her murmurs by her love-sick swains
Unknown in song: though not a purer stream,
Through meads more flowery, or more romantic groves,
Rolls towards the western main. Hail, sacred flood!
May still thy hospitable swains be blest
In rural innocence; thy mountains still
Teem with the fleecy race; thy tuneful woods
For ever flourish; and thy vales look gay
With painted meadows, and the golden grain!
Oft with thy blooming sons, when life was new,
Sportive and petulant, and charm'd with toys,
In thy transparent eddies have I lav'd;
Oft trac'd with patient steps thy fairy banks,
With the well-imitated fly to hook
The eager trout, and with the slender line
And yielding rod, solicit to the shore
The struggling panting prey; while vernal clouds
And tepid gales obscur'd the ruffled pool,
And from the deeps call'd forth the wanton swarms.
B. iii. v. 96.
What he has here added of his love of fishing is from another passage in the Seasons.
But his imitations of other writers, however frequent, have no semblance of study or labour. They seem to have been self-suggested, and to have glided tacitly and insensibly into the current of his thoughts.
This is evinced by the little pains he took to work upon and heighten such resemblances. As he did not labour the details injudiciously, so he had a clear conception of his matter as a whole. The consequence is, that the poem has that unity and just subordination of parts which renders it easy to be comprehended at one view, and, on that account, more agreeable than the didactic poems of his contemporaries, which having detached passages of much more splendour, are yet wanting in those recommendations. One objection to his subject is, that it is least pleasing at that period of life when poetry is most so; for it is not till the glow of youth is gone by, and we begin to feel the infirmities and the coldness of age, that we are disposed to bestow much attention on the Art of Preserving Health.
His tragedy is worth but little. It appears from his Essays, that he had formed a contracted notion of nature, as an object of imitation for the tragic poet; and he has failed to give a faithful representation of nature, even according to his own imperfect theory.
The two short epistles on Benevolence and Taste, have ease and vigour enough to shew that he could, with a little practice, have written as well in the couplet measure as he did in blank verse. If Armstrong cannot be styled a man of genius, he is at least one of the most ingenious of our minor poets.