Dr. John Armstrong

Richard Alfred Davenport, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 67:7-20.

In the Scotch shire of Roxburgh, but closely bordering on England, is the pastoral vale which is watered by the Liddel, and lakes its name from that river. It was in this vale, at Castleton, of which parish his father and brother were successively the clergymen, that JOHN ARMSTRONG was born, but in what year I am unable to ascertain. Of his education the early part was probably received at home; it was completed at the university of Edinburgh. He is said to have gone through his course of studies with more than common reputation, and he took the degree of M.D. on the fourth of February, 1732. The subject of his thesis was De Tabe Purulente. In conformity to the usage of the university, this dissertation was published, and Armstrong immediately sent a copy of it, with a modest and complimentary letter in Latin, to Sir Hans Sloane, who was then President of the College of Physicians. Whether by this tribute of respect he obtained the thanks or kindness of the president is not known.

Armstrong seems early to have imbibed a love of elegant literature. He had likewise a taste for, and no mean judgment in, the fine arts, though it is probable that this was acquired or perfected at a later period. In poetry, the first of his efforts which have been preserved are the imitations of Shakspeare. The piece which bears the title of Winter was, he tells us, "just finished when Mr. Thomson's celebrated poem upon the same subject appeared." As Thomson's poem was published in March, 1726, and as Armstrong's was composed to amuse "the solitude of a winter passed in a wild romantic country," the composition of the latter must be referred to the close of the year 1725, while, perhaps, he was residing at Castleton. The verses of Armstrong were praised by Thomson, Young, Aaron Hill, and Mallet. Mallet even intended to publish them, but did not persist in his intention. The two other fragments formed a part of an unfinished tragedy, which he confesses to have been "attempted upon an irregular and extravagant plan, at an age much too early for such achievements."

As the metropolis is the spot where all young adventurers hope that fame and fortune await them, we may suppose that it was visited by Armstrong soon after he had taken his degree. He was certainly in London in 1735, in which year he published, anonymously, an octavo pamphlet, aimed at quacks, quackery, and the deficient education of practising apothecaries. Quacks and quackery still reign as triumphantly as when he wrote: but, fortunately for the sick, practising apothecaries are no longer the dangerous beings which they once were. The title of the pamphlet is 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. This satirical effusion 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, by their most devoted servant and zealous admirer." Though it is not, as some have said, written in the very spirit of Lucian, it possesses a considerable share of drollery and humour. It has been reprinted in Dilly's Repository; but, like all temporary productions, it is not now likely to attract many readers.

The next work of Armstrong was a professional one, which appeared in 1737, inscribed, in a complimentary strain, to Dr. Alexander Stuart. It was intituled A Synopsis of the History and Cure of Venereal Diseases, and was, in fact, an abridgment of the most eminent writers on that subject.

This was followed, in the same year, by The Economy of Love, a poem, to which cannot be denied the praise of being vigorously written. Its poetical beauty is, however, but a poor atonement for its flagrant licentiousness. In an edition, published thirty years afterwards, he expunged many offensive passages; but nothing short of destroying the work could render it innocuous. For the copyright he received fifty guineas from Miller the bookseller, who was amply repaid by a rapid sale. So trifling was the sum for which Armstrong stained his character, and doubtless injured his practice among the reputable part of mankind; for what husband or father would not hesitate to call in a physician whose chief fame arose from his having perverted his genius to rouse the passions and corrupt the morals of youth? This poem is said by his friends to have been written merely as a burlesque on some didactic writers; while others, with less charitable feelings, consider it as a degrading speculation, by which he hoped to entice his readers into libertine courses, that he might derive benefit from his medical skill, in removing the consequences of their indiscretion.

That his practice in London was unequal to his wants or his wishes, may be inferred from his having been willing to relinquish it, and seek his fortune in a remote and unhealthy climate, amidst the din of war. In the summer of 1741 he solicited Dr. Birch for a recommendation to Dr. Mead, through whose influence he supposed that he might procure the appointment of physician to the forces, which were then on the point of sailing to the West Indies. The appointment he did not obtain; the friendship of Dr. Mead, he either then or subsequently acquired.

Hitherto his poetical fame had been only of a sinister kind. He at length, however, gave a proof that his genius was not confined to the adornment of subjects for the choice of which he ought to blush.

The Art of preserving Health was published by him in 1744, and was generally read, and as generally admired. It was praised by men whose praise was an honour; and it at once gave him a place among the poets of his country. That it much increased the number of his patients is not probable; for, strange as is the fact, literary reputation seems, in more than one instance, to have been a bar to the progress of a physician.

The first book of his poem contains a graceful and well merited compliment to Dr. Mead. This was not bestowed in vain, if it be true that the appointment, which Armstrong received in 1746, to be one of the physicians of the hospital, behind Buckingham House, for sick and lame soldiers, was procured for him through the solicitation of Mead. By this appointment he probably gained something in medical character as well as in income.

Still continuing a votary of the Muses, though an unfrequent one, he published, in 1751, Benevolence, an Epistle to Eumenes, and, in 1753, Taste, an Epistle to a young Critic. In the latter year Dr. Theobald addressed to him two Latin odes, in the language of warm encomium.

Five years elapsed before Armstrong again came forward, and then it was in prose, and under a borrowed name. His Sketches, or Essays on various Subjects, by Launcelot Temple, appeared in 1758. In these sketches he more openly manifested those cynical feelings which he had occasionally betrayed in his poem on Taste. "He could (he tells us) have given these little loose fragments much bolder strokes, as well as more delicate touches: but as an author's renown depends at present upon the mobility, he dreads the danger of writing too well; and feels the value of his own labour too sensibly to bestow it where, in all probability, it might serve only to depreciate his performance." Such a petulant and absurd declaration as this, even if sincere, must provoke the smile of contempt. He was under no compulsion to publish; and if it were true that the renown of an author depended upon the mobility, why did he condescend not only to write for those whom he affected to despise, but even to sink his style to their level against his own better judgment, and with the certainty of incurring ridicule from men of taste?

The Sketches had a rapid sale, for which it has been imagined that they were in part indebted to a report that he had been assisted in them by the pen of Wilkes. The internal evidence of style does not give sanction to this report; for, as Mr. Chalmers has justly observed, Wilkes had a "more chaste classical taste, and a purer vein of humour than we find in these sketches;" which, it must be owned, are also open to his censure of being "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." Yet they are not without merit. The remarks on florid writing, on the versification of tragedy, and on one or two other subjects, are judicious and not inelegantly expressed.

In 1760, Armstrong received the appointment of physician to the army which Great Britain was then maintaining in Germany, for the preservation of Hanover. If confidence may be placed in the evidence of a letter, written by the widow of Dr. Armstrong's brother, this appointment was procured through the influence of Mr. Wilkes. "Dr. Armstrong (says she) had always in his heart a very great regard for Mr. Wilkes, as a very pleasant companion, who had always been kind to him. In his last illness he said that Mr. Wilkes had got him into the army; and that, though he had been rash and hasty, he still retained a due sense of gratitude."

When he had been in Germany about four months, he addressed to Wilkes some familiar verses, which were soon after published in London, with the title of A Day; an Epistle to John Wilkes, of Aylesbury, Esq. In a prefatory notice it was pretended that the poem was printed by the nameless editor from an imperfect copy, "without the knowledge or consent of the author, or of the gentleman to whom it was addressed." This, however, we may now believe to be one of those stratagems which authors sometimes employ. It appears to be ascertained, that Armstrong not only authorized, but even prompted the publication, and that the lines which were omitted by Wilkes were either such as were unfinished in their composition, or of a nature to give offence. Armstrong, we may suppose, was willing to take the chance of praise for his pleasantry and wit, provided that he could at the same time reserve the power of disavowing the work, should it happen to he treated with critical severity.

Two lines of this poem are erroneously imagined to have brought down on their author the bitter satire of Churchill, in the posthumous production intituled The Journey; and biographers, without troubling themselves to inquire into the truth of the fact, have descanted on the vanity and irascibility of the satirist. The lines which are presumed to have given inexpiable offence, are the sixth and eighth of the following passage:

What news to day? I ask you not what rogue,
What paltry imp of fortune's now in vogue;
What forward blundering fool was last preferred,
By mere pretence distinguish'd from the herd;
With what new cheat the gaping town is smit;
What crazy scribbler reigns the present wit;
What stuff for winter the two booths have mixt,
What bouncing mimic grows a Roscius next.

If, under any circumstances, Churchill could in this have discovered a ground of quarrel, he must indeed have been the most vain and irascible of mankind. It would have even required in him a more than ordinary share of folly as well as of vanity, to construe the vague sixth line into a personal attack, and as to the eighth, it clearly applies to an actor and not to a poet. Besides, had he thought himself aggrieved, he would not have delayed to lake vengeance. He was never slow to return the shafts of his enemies, and would scarcely have suffered Armstrong to escape during four years. This is, perhaps, conclusive. There remains, however, another argument, which is irrefragable. The story is destroyed by an appeal to dates. The epistle to Wilkes was not written in 1761, as some biographers have asserted; but, on the contrary, was sent from the press in the latter end of 1760. The Rosciad did not come out till March in the following year; and it must be remembered that, till this satire appeared, Churchill was unknown as a man of talent. To render the tale still more absurd, let it be added, that, nearly three years after the pretended deadly affront had been given by him, Armstrong was complimented by Churchill and Wilkes, in the dedication which they conjointly prefixed to the tragedy of The Fall of Mortimer.

To the noxious influence of politics we must doubtless look for the cause which dissolved the friendship of Wilkes and Armstrong, and drew down upon the latter the hostility of Churchill. The torrent of ridicule and abuse, which Wilkes and his party daily poured forth upon Scotland and Scotchmen, could scarcely fail of exciting angry feelings in the bosom of Armstrong. The breaking up of their intimacy seems to have happened late in 1763, or early in 1764. Churchill, in The Journey, accuses him of ingratitude, and is supposed to allude to his forgetfulness of pecuniary obligations which he owed to Wilkes. It is at least equally probable that the charge may refer to the kindness done to him, in procuring, or facilitating, his appointment of army physician. It is certain that they were never reconciled. So late as 1773, an interview, not in the spirit of friendship, took place between them, in which, though it was sought for by Armstrong, he appears to have had the worst of the argument. This meeting was occasioned by some letters in the Public Advertiser, which, in a manner not very pleasing to Armstrong, called the attention of the town to the circumstances connected with the publication of his Epistle to Wilkes. On his death bed, however, he, by confessing that he had been "rash and hasty," acquitted his friend of being culpable with respect to their separation.

After the peace of Paris he returned to England, and resumed his practice, which, however, never extended beyond a narrow circle. It was not till 1770 that he again came forward in the character of an author. He then collected his scattered works, with the exception of A Day, and The Economy of Love, and he added, Imitations of Shakspeare and Spenser; The Universal Almanack, by Noureddin Ali; The Forced Marriage, a tragedy, rejected by Garrick in 1754, and a second part of his Sketches and Reveries. The whole was published in two volumes, with the title of Miscellanies, to which he prefixed a splenetic advertisement, apparently written for the sole purpose of making an opportunity to express his lofty contempt of "the opinion of the mobility, from the highest to the lowest." He did not, he declares, write for the public, he wished for the praise of only the best judges; he had consequently no ground for expecting that his book would be rapidly spread. Yet, with a strange inconsistency, in less than a month after his Miscellanies came out, we find him murmuring at the slowness of the sale. In a letter to Dr. Smollett, he says, "though I admitted my operator to an equal share of profit and loss, the publication has been managed in such a manner, as if there had been a combination to suppress it; notwithstanding which, I am told, it makes its way tolerably at least. But I have heard to-day that somebody is to give me a good trimming very soon."

That of which he professes to have been forewarned, did actually come to pass. For the vulgar and brutal language of some of his sketches he was severely chastised by the critics. It is in truth such as must excite disgust in every delicate and candid mind. The periodical critics did not stand alone in their censure of it. In a letter to Sir William Forbes, Beattie mentions it with reprobation, and, at the same time, gives a just character of The Forced Marriage, and The Universal Almanack. "I know not (says he) what is the matter with Armstrong, but he seems to have conceived a rooted aversion against 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 Almanack; 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."

With what regard to decorum some of the Sketches of Armstrong are penned, it is fit that the reader, who has not seen them, should be enabled to judge. One specimen will suffice. "There is nothing more true (says he) than that the inhabitants of a certain metropolis are, in general, not only the most brutal, indecent, and immoral, but the most stupid and ignorant of the whole people throughout the kingdom. Oh! — to any who feels for the honour and dignity of England, what a subject of shame and mortification it must be, that the bad manners of those who inhabit the capital expose the whole nation to the contempt of all foreigners! Oh! good God! to the contempt of all Europe; who must naturally form an unjust opinion of the more civilized and more sensible people in all the most distant corners of the kingdom from what passes here. Where the master of the house is a clown, the whole partake in his disgrace; and is even apt to be infected by him. Pray don't call the people of this town Englishmen. — For the honour of England, call them Londoners for ever. — The yesty dregs of Great Britain and Ireland; the frothy scum of every nation of Europe, of every province of America, fermenting with the gowk spittle of Jamaica, is their composition. Such Englishmen as these Londoners — good heaven! — are the only real enemies of England; which never can be ruined, but by their stupidity, their absurdity, their madness, and villany."

Such was the filth with which Armstrong wantonly strove to bespatter more than half a million of his fellow citizens. Is it to be wondered at, that he, whose hand was against every man, should find every man's hand against him?

Among his friends was Mr. Fuseli, the painter, whose future eminence he predicted in one of the Sketches. With this gentleman, in the summer of 1770, he visited the continent, and spent a short time in the society of Dr. Smollett, who then resided near Leghorn, to whom he was warmly attached. Next year, under his fictitious name of Temple, he published his hasty tour, with the title of A short Ramble through some Parts of France and Italy. It has dropped into oblivion; and, as the style of it was poor, the remarks were trite, and the sentiments were misanthropic, there is no reason to regret its fate.

The last work that came from his pen was his Medical Essays, a 4to. pamphlet, published n 1773, which contains many judicious observations. In his concluding essay, he introduces the subject of himself; and, as complaining was probably become habitual, he complains of being roughly treated by persons of his own profession, by the herd of critics, and by reviewers. He complains of severity, he who had lavished abuse on whole communities. To a "ticklish state of spirits, and a distempered excess of sensibility," which prevented him from pushing himself into notice, he attributes the smallness of his practice, and it is probable that these were among the causes, though they were not the sole causes, that he never attained to popularity as a physician.

His death took place on the seventh of September, 1779, at his house in Russel Street, Covent Garden; and it is supposed to have been occasioned by a contusion, which he accidentally received on his thigh, while getting out of a carriage. His continual discontent had induced his acquaintance to believe that he was suffering under the evils of poverty; and, therefore, when he died, they were not a little astonished to learn that he had saved more than three thousand pounds from an income which they had imagined to be inadequate to provide him with the comforts of existence. Possessed, as he was, of poetical reputation, of friends, a competency, and health, it does not appear that he was deprived of any thing which is really necessary to the happiness of a rational being.

Yet, while the failings of Armstrong are recorded, let not injustice be done to him. His splenetic feelings seem to have evaporated in words, and never to have influenced his actions, he was wrong-headed, not malignant-hearted. Mr. Fuseli is said "to speak highly in favour of the general benevolence of his character," and his testimony is supported by that of the late Dr. Cumming, of Dorchester. "I was early acquainted with Dr. Armstrong (says Dr. Cumming), have visited him at his lodgings, knew many of his intimates, have met him in company; but, from my having visited the metropolis so seldom since my residence in Dorsetshire, I was not so well acquainted with him as I should otherwise have been, or wished to be. He always appeared to me (and I was confirmed in this opinion by that of his most intimate friends) 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 elbow his way through a crowd of competitors. An intimate friendship always subsisted between the Doctor and the author of the Seasons, as well as with other gentlemen of learning and genius; he was intimate with, and respected by, Sir John Pringle, to the time of his death."

Had Armstrong written only his few miscellaneous poems, he could scarcely have been considered as more than a man of observation and wit, who amused himself by clothing big thoughts in verse, often of careless construction, though, in general, easy and spirited. The Imitations of Shakspeare fail as imitations; for they are not truly Shakspearian in their style. The language likewise is inflated, and at times verges on bombast. Yet in Winter, and Progne's Dream, genuine poetry is to be found. The Epistle to Eumenes is far from being a finished piece, but it may, nevertheless, be perused with pleasure, for the uniform benevolence of its sentiments, and the very striking manner in which some of those sentiments are expressed. Taste is a production of a superior kind, full of point and animation and acute remark. The Epistle to Wilkes is of the same species; and, though it is a hasty composition, which now and then sets rhyme and metre at defiance, its faults are atoned for by its strokes of pleasantry and of harmless satire.

The fame of Armstrong rests, however, on his Art of preserving Health, which is, perhaps, the best didactic poem in any modern language. The skill, as well as the genius, of the poet is eminently displayed in it. There is nothing forced or disproportionate or out of place. Each part contrasts with, and relieves the other, like the light and shade of a picture. It is a mark of the purity of his taste, that he never, as some have done, degenerates into the mock-heroic, by using a pomp of expression to elevate trivial or subordinate circumstances. Nor, on the other hand, does he degrade those circumstances still lower, by poverty of style. Where the subject admits not of ornament, he contrives to please by graceful simplicity, and by happily chosen epithets and illustrations; but where it affords scope to his talents, he rises into dignity, and not seldom into grandeur and sublimity. Among many passages which may be adduced, to vindicate to him the possession of high poetic powers, are the addresses to Hygeia and to the Naiads, and the descriptions of the sweating sickness, and of the perishable nature of all earthly things. The Art of Preserving Health has been frequently reprinted, and as, while the human race continues to exist, the interest excited by Armstrong's theme must always be as strong as it now is, there is no probability that his poem will ever sink into oblivion. It is not likely to be superseded by the work of any future writer, and it can he rendered obsolete by nothing short of an entire change in the structure of our language.