1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Armstrong

William Tooke, Note to The Journey; Poetical Works of Charles Churchill (1804) 2:375-77n.



Let them with Armstrong, taking leave of sense,
Read musty lecture lectures on Benevolence,
Or con the pages of his gaping Day,
Where all his former fame was thrown away,
Where all but barren labour was forgot,
And the vain stiffness of a letter'd Scot....

Dr. John Armstrong, who has in that beautiful poem, the Art of Preserving Health, convinced us by his own example, that we ought not to blame antiquity for acknowledging one power of physic, melody, and song, was, until the publication of the North Briton, on the most intimate footing of friendship with Wilkes and Churchill. He could not however but feel hurt at the constant attacks made upon his countrymen the Scotch; and in politics he by no means approved of the system adopted by his friends. In 1761, while physician to the English army in Germany, he wrote a careless epistle to Wilkes, called Day, which was published (as the prefatory advertisement confesses) "without the knowledge or consent of the author, or of the gentleman to whom it was addressed." In this poem he wantonly hazarded a reflection, which drew on him the unrelenting vengeance of our severe satirist. The lines at which Churchill took offence were these:

What news to day? — I ask you not what rogue,
What paltry imp of fortune's now in vogue;
What forward blund'ring fool was last preferr'd,
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 books have mixt,
What bouncing mimic grows a Roscius next.

Armstrong, it must be acknowledged, had thus given the first cause of offence, but the retaliation was unjustifiably severe; he was incapable of the crime with which he is charged, and the imputation of ingratitude, originating in some pecuniary obligations he had formerly been under to Wilkes, does not apply to the character of Armstrong, who always acknowledged the obligation, and sincerely lamented the first interruption and consequent dissolution of their friendship, as solely attributable to the malign influence they were both under of the demon of party. An allusion is also made by Churchill to a poem of the doctor's intitled "Benevolence, an epistle to Eumenes," which though too satirical for such a subject, is written with a spirited concisenesss, and contains a lively representation of character, couched in language of much sprightliness and wit.

As Day is not to be found among the collections of Armstrong's poems in general circulation, the reader will not be displeased at our extracting from it the following dissuasive against the use of port, a liquor then first coming into general fashion:

Amid your careless glee
You'll swallow port one time for cote rotie:
But you, aware of the Lethean flood,
Will scarce repeat the dose; forbid you should!
'Tis such a deadly foe to all that's bright,
'Twould soon encumber ev'n your fancy's flight;
And if 'tis true, what some wise preacher says,
That we our gen'rous ancestors disgrace,
The fault from this pernicious fountain flows,
Hence half our follies, half our crimes and woes;
And e'er our maudlin genius mounts again
'Twill cause a sea of claret and champain
Of this retarding glue to rinse the nation's brain.
The mud-fed carp refines among the springs,
And time and burgundy might do great things,
But health and pleasure we for trade despise,
For Portugal's grudged gold our genius dies.
O hapless race! O land to be bewail'd!
With murders, treasons, horrid deaths, appall'd,
Where dark-red skies with livid thunders frown,
While earth convulsive shakes her cities down;
Where hell in heav'n's name holds her impious court,
And the grape bleeds out that black poison, port:
Sad poison to themselves, to us still worse,
Brew'd and rebrew'd, a double, treble curse.

In the Gentleman's Magazine for January, 1792, is inserted a curious paper, purporting to be the substance of a conversation which took place in April 1773, between Dr. Armstrong and Mr. Wilkes; on the subject of some personally abusive papers against the doctor, which appeared in the Public Advertiser, and were generally attributed to the pen of the latter. At this interview, the parties reproach each other with considerable asperity for their political rancour and national prejudices, and conclude the dialogue with mutual dissatisfaction.