1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Armstrong

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:68-69.



JOHN ARMSTRONG, the friend of Thomson, of Mallet, Wilkes, and other public and literary characters of that period, is now only known as the author of a didactic poem, the "Art of Preserving Health," which is but little read. Armstrong was son of the minister of Castleton, a pastoral parish in Roxburghshire. He studied medicine in Edinburgh, and took his degree of M.D. in 1732. He repaired to London, and became known by the publication of several fugitive pieces and medical essays. A very objectionable poem, the "Economy of Love," gave promise of poetical powers, but marred his practice as a physician. In 1744 appeared his "Art of Preserving Health," which was followed by two other poems, "Benevolence and Taste," and a volume of prose essays, the latter indifferent enough. In 1760 he was appointed physician to the forces in Germany; and on the peace in 1763, he returned to London, where he practised, but with little success, till his death, September 7, 1779, in the 70th year of his age. Armstrong seems to have been an indolent and splenetic, but kind-hearted man — shrewd, caustic, and careful (he left £3000, saved out of a small income), yet warmly attached to his friends. His portrait in the "Castle of Indolence" is in Thomson's happiest manner:—

With him was sometimes joined in silent walk
(Profoundly silent, for they never spoke)
One shyer still, who quite detested talk;
Oft stung by spleen, at once away he broke
To groves of pine and broad o'ershadowing oak;
There, inly thrilled, he wandered all alone,
And on himself his pensive fury wroke,
Nor ever uttered word, save when first shone
The glittering star of eve — "Thank Heaven, the day is done!"

Warton has praised the "Art of Preserving Health" for its classical correctness and closeness of style, and its numberless poetical images. In general, however, it is stiff and laboured, with occasional passages of tumid extravagance; and the images are not unfrequently echoes of those of Thomson and other poets. The subject required the aid of ornament, for scientific rules are in general bad themes for poetry, and few men are ignorant of the true philosophy of life, however they may deviate from it in practice. That health is to be preserved by temperance, exercise, and cheerful recreation, is a truth familiar to all from infancy. Armstrong, however, was no ascetic philosopher. His motto is, "take the good the gods provide you," but take it in moderation.

When you smooth
The brows of care, indulge your festive vein
In cups by well-informed experience found
The least your bane, and only with your friends.

The effects of over-indulgence in wine he has finely described:—

But most too passive, when the blood runs low,
Too weakly indolent to strive with pain,
And bravely by resisting conquer fate,
Try Circe's arts; and in the tempting bowl
Of poisoned nectar sweet oblivion swill.
Struck by the powerful charm, the gloom dissolves
In empty air; Elysium opens round,
A pleasing phrenzy buoys the lightened soul,
And sanguine hopes dispel your fleeting care;
And what was difficult, and what was dire,
Yields to your prowess and superior stars:
The happiest you of all that e'er were mad,
Or are, or shall be, could this folly last.
But soon your heaven is gone: a heavier gloom
Shuts o'er your head; and, as the thundering stream,
Swollen o'er its banks with sudden; mountain rain,
Sinks from its tumult to a silent brook,
So, when the frantic raptures in your breast
Subside, you languish into mortal man
You sleep, and waking find yourself undone.
For, prodigal of life, in one rash night
You lavished more than might support three days.
A heavy morning comes; your cares return
With tenfold rage. An anxious stomach well
May be endured; so may the throbbing head;
But such a dim delirium, such a dream,
Involves you; such a dastardly despair
Unmans your soul, as maddening Pentheus felt,
When, baited round Cithaeron's cruel sides,
He saw two suns, and double Thebes ascend.

In prescribing as a healthy situation for residence a house on an elevated part of the sea-coast, he indulges in a vein of poetical luxury worthy the enchanted grounds of the "Castle of Indolence:"

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.
The murmuring rivulet, and the hoarser strain
Of waters rushing o'er the slippery rocks,
Will nightly lull you to ambrosial rest.
To please the fancy is no trifling good,
Where health is studied; for whatever moves
The mind with calm delight, promotes the just
And natural movements of the harmonious frame.

All who have witnessed or felt the inspiriting effects of fine mountain scenery on invalids, will subscribe to the truth so happily expressed in the concluding lines of this passage. The blank verse of Armstrong somewhat resembles that of Cowper in compactness and vigour, but his imagination was hard and literal, and wanted the airy expansiveness and tenderness of pure inspiration. It was a high merit, however, to succeed where nearly all have failed, in blending with a subject so strictly practical and prosaic the art and fancy of the poet. Much learning, skill, and knowledge are compressed into his poem, in illustration of his medical and ethical doctrines. The whole is divided into four books or divisions — the first on air, the second on diet, the third on exercise, and the fourth on the passions. In his first book, Armstrong has penned a ludicrously pompous invective on the climate of Great Britain, "steeped in continual rains, or with raw fogs bedewed." He exclaims—

Our fathers talked
Of summers, balmy airs, and skies serene:
Good Heaven! for what unexpiated crimes
This dismal change! The brooding elements
Do they, your powerful ministers of wrath,
Prepare some fierce exterminating plague?
Or is it fixed in the decrees above,
That lofty Albion melt into the main?
Indulgent nature! O, dissolve this gloom;
Bind in eternal adamant the winds
That drown or wither; give the genial west
To breathe, and in its turn the sprightly south,
And may once more the circling seasons rule
The year, not mix in every monstrous day!

Now, the fact we believe is, that in this country there are more good days in the year than in any other country in Europe. A few extracts from the "Art of Preserving Health" are subjoined. The last, which is certainly the most energetic passage in the whole poem, describes the "sweating sickness" which scourged England

Ere yet the fell Plantagenets had spent
Their ancient rage at Bosworth's purple field.

In the second, Armstrong introduces an apostrophe to his native stream, which perhaps suggested the more felicitous ode of Smollett to Leven Water. It is not unworthy of remark, that the poet entirely overlooks the store of romantic association and ballad-poetry pertaining to Liddisdale, which a mightier than he, in the next age, brought so prominently before the notice of this world.