These scanty materials are taken principally from Mr. Nichols's Life of Bowyer, and the Biographical Dictionary. To the former they were communicated, however sparingly, by the friends of Dr. Armstrong.
He was born in the parish of Castleton in Roxburghshire, where his father and brother were clergymen: and having compleated his education at the university of Edinburgh, took his degree in physic, Feb. 4, 1731, with much reputation. His thesis De Tabe purulente was published as usual.
He appears to have courted the Muses while a student: his descriptive sketch in imitation of Shakespeare was one of his first attempts, and received the cordial approbation of Thomson, Mallet, and Young. Mallet, he informs us, intended to have published it, but altered his mind. His other imitations of Shakespeare were part of an unfinished tragedy written at a very early age. Much of his time, if we may judge from his writings, was devoted to the study of polite literature, and although he cannot be said to have entered deeply into any particular branch, he was more than a superficial connoisseur in painting, statuary, and music.
At what time he came to London is uncertain, but in 1735, he published an octavo pamphlet, without his name, entitled An Essay for abridging the Study of Physic: to which is added a Dialogue between Hygeia, Mercury, and Pluto, relating to the Practice of Physic, as it is managed by a certain illustrious Society. As also an Epistle from Usbeck the Persian, to Joshua Ward, esq. It is dedicated to the "Antacademic Philosophers, to the generous despisers of the schools, to the deservedly-celebrated Joshua Ward, John Moor, and the rest of the numerous sect of inspired physicians." The Essay, which has been lately reprinted in Dilly's Repository, is an humourous attack on quacks and quackery, with allusions to the neglect of medical education among the practising apothecaries; but the author had exhausted his wit in it, and the Dialogue and Epistle are consequently flat and insipid.
In 1737, he published A Synopsis of the History and Cure of the Venereal Disease, probably as an introduction to practice in that lucrative branch: but it was unfortunately followed by his poem, The Economy of Love, which, although it enjoyed a rapid sale, has been very properly excluded from every collection of poetry, and is supposed to have impeded his professional career. To 1741, we find him soliciting Dr. Birch's recommendation to Dr. Mead, that he might be appointed physician to the forces then going to the West Indies.
His celebrated poem, The Art of Preserving Health, appeared in 1744, and contributed highly to his fame as a poet. Dr. Warton, in his Reflections on Didactic Poetry, annexed to his edition of Virgil, observed that "To describe so difficult a thing, gracefully and poetically, as the effects of distemper on the human body, was reserved for Dr. Armstrong, who accordingly hath nobly executed it at the end of the third book of his Art of Preserving health, where he hath given us that pathetic account of the sweating sickness. There is a classical correctness and closeness of style in this poem that are truly admirable, and the subject is raised and adorned by numberless poetical images." Dr. Mackenzie, in his History of Health, bestowed similar praises on this poem, which was indeed every where read and admired.
In 1746, he was appointed one of the physicians to the hospital for lame and sick soldiers behind Buckingham-house. In 1751, he published his poem on Benevolence, in folio, a production which seems to come from the heart, and contains sentiments which could have been expressed with equal ardour only by one who felt them. His Taste, an Epistle to a young critic, 1753, is a lively and spirited imitation of Pope, and the first production in which our author began to view men and manners with a splenetic eye. In 1758, he published Sketches, or Essays on Various Subjects, under the fictitious name of Lancelot Temple, esq. In some of these he is supposed to have been assisted by the celebrated John Wilkes, with whom he lived in habits of intimacy. What Mr. Wilkes contributed we are not told, but this gentleman, with all his moral failings had a more chaste classical taste and a purer vein of humour than we find in these Sketches, which are deformed by a perpetual flow of affectation, a struggle to say smart things, and above all a most disgusting repetition of vulgar oaths and exclamations. This practice, so unworthy of a gentleman or a scholar, seems to have predominated in Dr. Armstrong's conversation, and is not unsparingly scattered through all his works, with the exception of his Art of Preserving Health. It incurred the just censure of the critics of his day, with whom, for this reason, he could never be reconciled.
In 1760, he was appointed physician to the army in Germany, where in 1761 he wrote a poem called Day, addressed to Mr. Wilkes. It was published in the same year, probably by some person to whom Mr. Wilkes had lent it. The editor, in his prefatory advertisement, professes to lament that it is not in his power to present the public with a more perfect copy of this spirited letter, he ventures to publish it exactly as it came into his hands, without the knowledge or consent of the author, or of the gentleman to whom it is addressed. His sole motive is to communicate to others the pleasure he has received from a work of taste and genius. He thinks himself secure of the thanks of the public, and hopes this farther advantage will attend the present publication, that it will soon be followed by a correct and compleat edition from the author's own manuscript.
All this is somewhat mysterious, but there will not, however, he much injustice in supposing that Mr. Wilkes conveyed to the press as much of this Epistle as he thought would do credit to the author and to himself, it is certain the poem was published by Andrew Miller who was well acquainted with Dr. Armstrong, and would not have joined in any attempt to injure his fame or property. The poem contains many striking allusions to manners and objects of taste, but the versification is frequently careless: the author did not think proper to add it to his collected works, nor was it over published in a more correct form.
In this poem he was supposed to reflect on Churchill, but in a manner so distant that few except of Churchill's irascible temper could have laid hold of any cause of offence. This libeller, however, retorted on our author in The Journey, with an accusation of ingratitude, the meaning of which is said to have been, that Dr. Armstrong forgot certain pecuniary obligations he owed to Mr. Wilkes. About the same time a coolness took between place Dr. Armstrong and Mr. Wilkes on political grounds. Armstrong not only serving under government as an army physician, but he was also a Scotchman, and could not help resenting the indignity which Wilkes was perpetually attempting to throw out that nation in his North Briton. On this account they appear to have continued at variance as late as the year 1773, when our author called Wilkes to account for some reflections on his character which he suspected he had written in his favourite vehicle, the Public Advertiser. The conversation which passed on this occasion was lately published in the Gentleman's Magazine (1792), and is said to have been copied from minutes taken the same afternoon, April 7, 1773, and sent to a friend: but as the doctor makes by far the worst figure in the dialogue, it can be no secret by whom the minutes were taken, and afterwards published. The contests, however, of Wilkes and his friends are of very little moment: there appears to have been no sound principle of friendship among them, and no ties which they did not think themselves at liberty to violate when it suited their interest.
After the peace, Dr. Armstrong resided some years in London, where his practice was confined to a small circle, but where he was respected as a man of general knowledge and taste, and an agreeable companion. In 1770, he published two volumes of Miscellanies, containing the articles already mentioned, except the Economy of Love (an edition of which he corrected for separate publication in 1768) and his Epistle to Mr. Wilkes. The new articles were, the Imitations of Shakespeare and Spenser, the Universal Almanac, and the Forced Marriage, a tragedy, which was offered to Garrick about the year 1754, and rejected. A second part of his Sketches was likewise added to these volumes, and appeared to every delicate and judicious mind, as rambling and improper as the first. " I know not," says Dr. Beattie to his friend sir William Forbes, " what is the matter with Armstrong, but he seems to have conceived a rooted aversion at the whole human race, except a few friends, who, it seems, are dead. He sets the public opinion at defiance: a piece of boldness, which neither Virgil nor Horace were ever so shameless as to acknowledge. I do not think that Dr. Armstrong has any cause to complain of the public: his Art of Health is not indeed a popular poem, but it is very much liked, and has often been printed. It will make him known and esteemed by posterity: and I presume he will be more esteemed if all his other works perish with him. In his Sketches, indeed, are many sensible and some striking remarks: but they breathe such a rancorous and contemptuous spirit, and abound so much in odious vulgarisms and colloquial execrations, that in reading we are as often disgusted as pleased. I know not what to say of his Universal Almanac; it seems to me an attempt at humour, but such humour is either too high or too low for my comprehension. The plan of his tragedy, called The Forced Marriage, is both obscure and improbable: yet there are good strokes in it, particularly in the last scene."
In 1771, he published another extraordinary effusion of spleen, under the title of A short Ramble through some parts of France and Italy, and with his assumed name of Lancelot Temple. This ramble he took in company with Mr. Fuseli, the celebrated painter, who speaks highly in favour of the general benevolence of his character. In 1773, under his own name, and unfortunately for his reputation, appeared a quarto pamphlet of Medical Essays, in which, while he condemns theory, he plunges into all the uncertainties of theoretical conjectures. He complains, likewise, in a very coarse style, of the neglect he met with as a physician, and the severity with which he was treated as an author, and appears to write with a temper soured by disappointment in all his pursuits.
He died at his house in Russell-street, Covent Garden, on Sept. 7, 1779. His death was attributed to an accidental contusion in his thigh, while getting into the carriage which brought him to town from a visit in Lincolnshire. To the surprise of his friends, who thought that poverty was the foundation of his frequent complaints, he left behind him more than three thousand pounds, saved out of a very moderate income arising principally from his half-pay.
His character is said to have been that of a man of learning and genius, of considerable abilities in his profession, of great benevolence and goodness of heart, fond of associating with men of parts and genius, but indolent and inactive, and therefore totally unqualified to employ the means that usually lead to medical employment, or to make his way through a crowd of competitors. An intimate friendship always subsisted between him and Thomson the poet; as well as with other gentlemen of learning and genius; and he was intimate with, and respected by sir John Pringle, at the time of his death. In 1753, Dr. Theobald addressed two Latin Odes, Ad ingenuum virum, tum medicis, tum poeticis facultatibus praestantem, Johannem Armstrong, M.D.
Dr. Armstrong's fame as a poet must depend entirely on his Art of Preserving Health, which, although liable to some of the objections usually offered against didactic poetry, is yet free from the weightiest; and in this respect he may be deemed more fortunate, as he certainly is superior to Philips, Dyer, and Grainger.
The Art of Preserving Health is so different from those which are mechanical, that his Muse is seldom invited to an employment beneath her dignity. The means of preserving health are so intimately connected with the mind, and depend so much on philosophy, reflection, and observation, that the author has full scope for the powers of fancy, and for many of those ornamental flights which are not only pleasing, but constitute genuine poetry. In considering the varieties of air and exercise, he has seized many happy occasions for picturesque description; and when treating on the passions, he has many striking passages of moral sentiment, which are vigorous, just, and impressive. In Book II. on Diet, we discover more judgment than poetical inspiration, and he seems to be aware that the subject had a natural tendency to lower his tone. He seems therefore intent in this book principally to render useful precepts familiar, and if possible to make them take hold of the imagination. There are however descriptive passages even here that are very grand. It would perhaps be difficult to select from these volumes an image more finely conceived and uniformly preserved, than where he inculcates the simple precept, that persons who have been exhausted for want of food ought not to indulge when plenty presents itself:
—While the vital fire
Burns feebly, heap not the green fuel on;
But prudently foment the wandering spark
With what the soonest feeds its kindred touch:
Be frugal ev'n of that: a little give
At first: that kindled, add a little more:
Till, by deliberate nourishing, the flame
Reviv'd, with all its wonted vigour glows.