1753
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Taste: an Epistle to a Young Critic.

Taste: an Epistle to a Young Critic.

Dr. John Armstrong


John Armstrong, Scottish physician and friend of James Thomson, imitates Pope's Essay on Criticism. In the course of his argument the critic (writing anonymously) censures a faux taste in imitations of modern writers, including Prior's much-imitated Ode to the Queen (1706): "Rowe breathes all Shakespear here! — That Ode of Prior | Is Spencer quite! egad his very fire!" p. 10. The poem was originally published anonymously. Compare the sentiments expressed in Samuel Johnson's Rambler No. 121 (1751).

Monthly Review: "The author is severely critical on all pretenders to taste, but he does not treat his subject in quite so masterly, nor in so poetical a manner, as Mr. Pope had done before him [in Essay on Criticism]" 8 (June 1753) 472.

Samuel Jackson Pratt: "Many of his poems are lost, and many he destroyed. To the latter, it is probable a much better reception would have been given by the majority of readers, than ever attended what he published. But he never courted the public: he wrote chiefly for his own amusement; and because he found it an agreeable and innocent way of sometimes spending an idle hour. He always most heartily despised the opinion of the 'mobility,' from the lowest to the highest; and if it is true what he has sometimes been told, that the best judges are on his side, he desires no more in the article of fame and renown as a writer" Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 5:cclxxxi.

Henry Francis Cary: "The two short epistles on Benevolence and Taste have ease and rigour enough to show 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" "John Armstrong" in London Magazine 6 (September 1822) 244.

Leigh Hunt: "Mr. Fuseli was lively and interesting in conversation, but not without his usual faults of violence and pretension. Nor was he always as decorous as an old man ought to be; especially one whose turn of mind is not of the lighter and more pleasurable cast. The licences he took were coarse, and had not sufficient regard to his company. Certainly they went a great deal beyond his friend Armstrong; to whose account, I believe, Mr. Fuseli's passion for swearing was laid. The poet condescended to be a great swearer, and Mr. Fuseli thought it energetic to swear like him" Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828) 291.

Edmund Gosse: "John Armstrong (1709-1779) was, like Thomson, a Roxburghshire man. He became a London physician, and had the indiscretion to admit being the author of a didactic poem, The Economy of Love (1736), the publication of which was justly considered a breach of professional etiquette. He tried to 'drug the memory of that insolence' by producing a very grave poem, also in blank verse, on The Art of Preserving Health (1744), divided into four books, on air, diet, exercise, and the passions. This was a very difficult subject, but it was treated with unexpected grace and vigour. Armstrong also contributed four medical stanzas to The Castle of Indolence. His epistles, Benevolence (1751) and Taste (1753), are in heroic rhyme, in which none of the Thomsonians excelled, and no one will ever read either Armstrong's tragedy, The Forced Marriage (1754), or the would-be sprightly prose essays which he published in 1758 under the pseudonym of Lancelot Temple. He collected his works in two pretty volumes of Miscellanies in 1770. Armstrong's diction was absurdly tumid; he calls a wild briar-rose 'a cynorrhoden,' and a cold bath 'a gelid cistern.' But his merits of dignity and melody are at present underrated. The structure of Armstrong's blank verse is excellent, and though founded upon Thomson's, has a certain independent stateliness" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 227-28.



Range from Tower-hill all LONDON to the Fleet,
Thence round the Temple, t' utmost Grosvenor-street:
Take in your route both Gray's and Lincoln's Inn;
Miss not, be sure, my LORDS and GENTLEMEN;
You'll hardly raise, as I with Petty guess,
Above twelve thousand men of taste; unless
In desperate times a Connoisseur may pass.

"A CONNOISSEUR! What's that?" 'Tis hard to say:
But you must oft amidst the Fair and Gay
Have seen a wou'd-be Rake, a fluttering Fool,
Who swears he loves the Sex with all his Soul.
Alas, vain Youth! dost thou admire sweet Jones?
Thou be gallant without or Blood or Bones!
You'd split to hear th' insipid Coxcomb cry
Ah charming Nanny! 'tis too much! I die!—
Die and be d—n'd, says one, but let me tell ye
I'll pay the Loss if ever Rapture kill ye.

'Tis easy learnt the Art to talk by rote:
At George's 'twill but cost you half a Groat;
The Bedford school at Three-pence is not dear, Sir;
At White's — the Stars instruct you for a Tester.
But he, whom Nature never meant to share
One Spark of Taste will never catch it there:—
Nor no where else; howe'er the booby Beau
Grows great with Pope, and Horace, and Boileau.

Good native Taste, tho' rude, is seldom wrong,
Be it in Music, Painting, or in Song.
But this, as well as other Faculties,
Improves with Age and ripens by Degrees.
I know, my Dear; 'tis needless to deny't,
You like Voiture, you think him wondrous bright:
But seven Years hence, your Relish more matur'd,
What now delights will hardly be endur'd.
The Boy may live to taste Racine's fine Charms,
Whom Lee's bald Orb or Rowe's dry Rapture warms:
But he, enfranchis'd from his Tutor's Care,
Who places Butler near Cervantes' chair;
Or with Erasmus can admit to vie
Brown of Squab-hall of merry Memory;
Will die a Goth: and nod at Woden's feast,
Th' eternal Winter long, on Gregory's Breast.

Long may he swill, this Patriarch of the dull,
The drowsy Mum — But touch not Maro's Skull!
His holy barbarous Dotage fought to doom,
Good Heaven! th' immortal Classics to the Tomb!—
Those sacred Lights shall bid new Genius rise
When all Rome's Saints have rotted from the Skies.
Be these your Guides, if at the Ivy Crown
You aim; each Country's Classics, and your own,
But chiefly with the Ancients pass your prime,
And drink Castalia at the Fountain's brim.
The Man to genuine Burgundy bred up,
Soon starts the dash of Methuen in his Cup.

Those sovereign Masters of the Muses skill
Are the true Patterns of good Writing still.
Their Ore was rich and seven Times purg'd of Lead;
Their Art seem'd Nature, 'twas so finely hid.
Tho' born with all the Powers of Writing well,
What Pains it cost they did not blush to tell.
Their Ease (my LORDS!) ne'er lowng'd for want of Fire,
Nor did their Rage thro' Affectation tire.
Free from all tawdry and imposing Glare
They trusted to their native grace of Air.
Rapt'rous and wild the trembling Soul they seize,
Or sly coy beauties steal it by Degrees;
The more you view them still the more they please.

Yet there are Thousands of scholastic Merit
Who worm their Sense out but ne'er taste their Spirit.
Witness each Pedant under Busby bred;
Each Commentator that e'er commented.
(You scarce can seize a Spot of Classic Ground,
With leagues of Dutch Morass so floated round.)
Witness — but Sir I hold a cautious Pen,
Lest I should wrong some honourable Men.
They grow Enthusiasts too — 'Tis true! 'tis pity!
But 'tis not every Lunatic that's witty.
Some have run Maro — and some Milton — mad,
Ashley once turn'd a solid Barber's Head:
Hear all that's said or printed if you can,
Ashley has turn'd more solid Heads than one.

Let such admire each great or specious Name;
For right or wrong the Joy to them's the same.
"Right!" Yes a thousand Times. — Each Fool has heard
That Homer was a wonder of a Bard.
Despise them civilly with all my Heart—
But to convince them is a desperate Part,
Why should you teize one for what secret Cause
One doats on Horace, or on Hudibras?
'Tis cruel, Sir, 'tis needless, to endeavour
To teach a Sot of Taste he knows no flavour.
To disunite I neither wish nor hope
A stubborn Blockhead from his fav'rite Fop.
Yes — Fop I say, were Maro's self before 'em:
For Maro's self grows dull as they pore o'er him.

But hear their Raptures o'er some specious Rhime
Dub'd by the musk'd and greasy Mob sublime.
For Spleen's dear sake hear how a Coxcomb prates
As clam'rous o'er his Joys as fifty Cats;
"Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, and Oaks," — and all the rest:
"I've heard" — Bless these long Ears! — "Heav'ns what a Strain!
Good God! What Thunders burst in this Campaign!
Hark Waller warbles! Ah! how sweetly killing!
Then that inimitable Splendid Shilling!
Rowe breathes all Shakespear here! — That Ode of Prior
Is Spencer quite! egad his very fire!—
As like" — Yes faith! as Gum-flowers to the Rose,
Or as to Claret flat Minorca's dose;
As like as (if I am not grosly wrong)
Erle Robert's Mice to aught e'er Chaucer sung.

Read boldly, and unprejudic'd peruse
Each fav'rite Modern, ev'n each ancient Muse.
With all the comic Salt and tragic Rage
The great stupendous Genius of our Stage,
Boast of our Island, Pride of human-kind,
Had Faults to which the Boxes are not blind.
His frailties are to ev'ry Gossip known:
Yet Milton's Pedantries not shock the Town.
Ne'er be the Dupe of Names, however high;
For some outlive good Parts, some misapply.
Each elegant Spectator you admire;
But must you therefore swear by Cato's Fire?
Masques for the Court, and oft a clumsey Jest,
Disgrac'd the Muse that wrought the Alchemist.
"But to the Ancients." — Faith! I am not clear,
For all the smooth round Type of Elzevir,
That ev'ry Work which lasts in Prose or Song,
Two thousand Years, deserves to last so long.
For not to mention some eternal Blades
Known only now in th' Academic Shades,
(Those sacred Groves where raptur'd Spirits stray,
And in word-hunting waste the live-long Day)
Ancients whom none but curious Critics scan,
Do, read Messala's Praises if you can.
Ah! who but feels the sweet contagious Smart
While soft Tibullus pours his tender Heart?
With him the Loves and Muses melt in Tears;
But not a Word of some Hexameters.
"You grow so squeamish and so dev'lish dry,
You'll call Lucretius vapid next." Not I.
Some find him tedious, others think him lame:
But if he laggs, his Subject is to blame.
Rough weary Roads thro' barren Wilds he tried,
Yet still he marches with true Roman Pride:
By fits a Meteor, gorgeous, rapid, bright,
He streams athwart the Philosophic Night.
Find you in Horace no insipid Odes?—
He dar'd to tell us Homer sometimes nods;
And but for such a Critic's hardy Skill
Homer might slumber unsuspected still.

Tasteless, implicit, indolent and tame,
At second hand we chiefly praise or blame.
Hence 'tis, for else one knows not why nor how,
Some Authors flourish for a Year or two:
For many some, more wond'rous still to tell;
Farquhar yet lingers on the Brink of Hell.
Of solid Merit others pine unknown;
At first Monimia fail'd to melt the town:
Sunk in dead Night the Giant Milton lay
'Till Sommer's Hand produc'd him to the Day.
But, Thanks to Heav'n and Addison's good Grace
Now ev'ry Fop is charm'd with Chevy Chace.

Specious and sage, the Sovereign of the Flock
Led to the Downs, or from the wave-worn Rock
Reluctant hurl'd, the tame implicit Train
Or crop the Downs, or headlong seek the Main.
As blindly we our solemn Leaders follow,
And good, and bad, and execrable swallow.

Judge for yourself; nor wait with timid Phlegm
'Till some illustrious Pedant hum or hem.
The Lords who starv'd old Ben were learndly fond
Of Chaucer, whom with bungling Toil they conn'd.
Their Sons, whose Ears bold Milton could not seize,
Would laugh o'er Ben like mad, and snuff and sneeze,
And swear, and seem as tickled as you please.
Their Spawn, the Pride of this sublimer Age,
Feel to the Toes and Horns grave Milton's Rage.
Tho' liv'd he now he might appeal with Scorn
To Lords, Knights, 'Squires and Doctors, yet unborn;
Or justly mad to MOLOCH'S burning fane
Devote the choicest Children of his Brain.
Judge for yourself; and as you find report.
Of Wit as freely as of Beef or Port.
Zounds! shall a pert or bluff important Wight,
Whose Brain is fanciless, whose Blood is white;
A mumbling Ape of Taste; prescribe us Laws
To try the Poets, for no better Cause
Than that he boasts per Ann. Ten Thousand clear,
Yelps in the House, or barely sits a Peer?
For shame! for shame! the liberal British Soul
To stoop to any stale Dictator's Rule!

I may be wrong, and often am no doubt,
But right or wrong with Friends with Foes 'twill out.
Thus 'tis perhaps my Fault if I complain
Of trite Invention and a flimsy Vein,
Tame Characters, uninteresting, jejune,
And Passions drily copied from Le Brun.
For I would rather never judge than wrong
That Friend of all Men, generous Fenelon.
But in the Name of Goodness, must I be
The Dupe of Charms I never yet could see?
And then to flatter where there's no Reward—
Better be any Patron-hunting Bard,
Who half our Lords with filthy Praise besmears,
And sing an Anthem to ALL MINISTERS;
Taste th' Attic Salt in ev'ry Peer's poor Rebus,
And crown each Gothic Idol for a Phoebus.

Alas! so far from Free, so far from Brave,
We dare not shew the little Taste we have.
With us you'll see ev'n Vanity controul
The most refin'd Sensations of the Soul.
Sad Otway's scenes, great Shakespear's we defy,
"Lard, Madam! 'tis so unpolite to cry!—
For shame, my Dear! d'ye credit all this Stuff?—
I vow — well, this is innocent enough?"
At Athens long ago, the Ladies — (married)
Dreamt not they misbehav'd tho' they miscarried,
When a wild Poet with licentious Rage
Turn'd fifty Furies loose upon the Stage.

They were so tender and so easy mov'd,
Heav'ns! how the Grecian Ladies must have lov'd!
For all the fine Sensations still have dwelt,
Perhaps, where one was exquisitely felt.
Thus he who heavenly Maro truly feels
Stands fix'd on Raphael, and at Handel thrills.
The grosser Senses too, the Taste, the Smell,
Are likely truest where the Fine prevail:
Who doubts that Horace must have cater'd well?
Friend, I'm a shrewd Observer, and will guess
What Books you doat on from your fav'rite Mess.
Brown and L'Estrange will surely charm whom e'er
The frothy Pertness strikes of weak Small-Beer.
Who steeps the Calves fat Loin in greasy Sauce
Will hardly loathe the Praise that bastes an Ass.
Who riots on Scotcht Collops scorns not any
Insipid, fulsome, trashy Miscellany.

But I am sick of Pen and Ink; and you
Will find this Letter long enough. Adieu!

[pp. 1-20]