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BORN 1709.—DIED 1779.
John ARMSTRONG was born in Roxburghshire, in the parish of Castleton, of which his father was the clergyman. He completed his education, and took a medical degree, at the university of Edinburgh, with much reputation, in the year 1732. Amidst his scientific pursuits, he also cultivated literature and poetry. One of his earliest productions in verse, was an “ Imitation of the Style of Shakespeare," which received the approbation of the poets Young and Thomson; although humbler judges will perhaps be at a loss to perceive in it any striking likeness to his great original. Two other sketches, also purporting to be imitations of Shakespeare, are found among his works. They are the fragments of an unfinished tragedy. One of them, the “ Dream of Progne," is not unpleasing. In the other, he begins the description of a storm by saying, that
“ The sun went down in wrath, the skies foam'd brass." It is uncertain in what
came to London ; but in 1735 he published an anonymous pamphlet, severely ridiculing the quackery of untaught practitioners. He dedicated this performance to Joshua Ward, John Moore, and others, whom he styles “ the Antacademic philosophers, and the generous
despisers of the schools." As a physician he never obtained extensive practice. This he himself
imputed to his contempt of the little artifices, which, he alleges, were necessary to popularity: by others, the failure was ascribed to his indolence and literary avocations; and there was probably truth in both accounts. A disgraceful poem, entitled, “The Economy of Love," which he published after coming to London, might have also had its share in impeding his professional career. He corrected the nefarious production, at a later period of his life, betraying at once a consciousness of its impurity, and a hankering after its reputation. So unflattering were his prospects, after several years residence in the metropolis, that he applied (it would seem without success) to be put on the medical staff of the forces, then going out to the West Indies. His “ Art of Preserving Health" appeared in 1744, and justly fixed his poetical reputation. In 1746 he was appointed physician to the hospital for sick soldiers, behind Buckingham House. In 1751 he published his poem on “ Benevolence;" in 1753 his “ Epistle on Taste;" and in 1758 his prose “ Sketches, by Launcelot Temple.” Certainly none of these productions exalted the literary character, which he had raised to himself by his “ Art of preserving Health.” The poems
“ Taste” and “ Benevolence” are very insipid. His “ Sketches” have been censured more than they seem to deserve for “ oaths and exclamations, and for a constant struggle to say smart things?.” They contain indeed some expressions which might be wished away, but these are very few
Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary.
in number; and several of his essays are plain and sensible, without any effort at humour.
In 1760 he was appointed physician to the forces that went over to Germany. It is at this era of his life that we should expect its history to be the most amusing, and to have furnished the most important relics of observation, from his having visited a foreign country which was the scene of war, and where he was placed, by his situation, in the midst of interesting events. It may be pleasing to follow heroes into retirement; but we are also fond of seeing men of literary genius amidst the action and business of life, Of Dr. Armstrong in Germany, however, we have no other information than what is afforded by his epistle to Wilkes, entitled “ Day,” which is by no means a bright production, and chiefly devoted to subjects of eating. With Wilkes he was, at that time, on terms of friendship; but their cordiality was afterwards dissolved by politics. Churchill took a share in the quarrel, and denounced our author as a monster of ingratitude towards Wilkes, who had been his benefactor; and Wilkes, by subsequently attacking Armstrong in the Daily Advertiser, shewed that he did not disapprove of the satirist's reproaches. To such personalities Armstrong might have replied in the words of Prior,
“ To John I owed great obligation,
But John unhappily thought fit
Sure John and I are more than quit.'*
But though his temper was none of the mildest, he had the candour to speak with gratitude of Wilkes's former kindness, and acknowledged that he was indebted to him for his appointment in the army.
After the peace he returned to London, where his practice, as well as acquaintance, was confined to a small circle of friends; but, among whom he was esteemed as a man of genius. From the originality of his mind, as well as from his reading, and more than ordinary taste in the fine arts, his conversation is said to have been richly entertaining. Yet if the character which is supposed to apply to him in the “ Castle of Indolence", describe him justly, his colloquial delightfulness must have been intermittent. In 1770 he published a collection of his Miscellanies, containing a new prose piece, “ The Universal Almanack,” and “ The Forced Marriage," a tragedy, which had been offered to Garrick, but refused, The whole was ushered in by a preface, full of arrogant defiance to public opinion. “He had never “ courted the public,” he said, “ and if it was true “ what he had been told, that the best judges were
on his side, he desired no more in the article of “ fame as a writer.” There was a good deal of matter in this collection, that ought to have rendered its author more modest, The " Universal
· Armstrong's character is said to have been painted in the stanza of the “ Castle of Indolence” beginning
“ With him was sometimes joined in silent walk
(Profoundly silent, for they never spoke)
Almanack" is a wretched production, to which the objections of his propensity to swearing, and abortive efforts at humour, apply more justly than to his “ Sketches;" and his tragedy, the “ Forced Marriage,” is a mortuum caput of insipidity. In the following year he visited France and Italy, and published a short, but splenetic account of his tour, under his old assumed name of Launcelot Temple. His last production was a volume of “ Professional Essays,” in which he took more trouble to abuse quacks than became his dignity, and shewed himself a man to whom the relish of life was not improving, as its feast drew towards a close. He died in September, 1779, of a hurt, which he accidentally received in stepping out of a carriage; and, to the no small surprise of his friends, left behind him more than £3000, saved out of a very moderate income, arising principally from his half pay.
His “ Art of Preserving Health" is the most successful attempt, in our language, to incorporate material science with poetry. Its subject had the advantage of being generally interesting; for there are few things that we shall be more willing to learn, either in prose or verse, than the means of preserving the outward bulwark of all other blessings. At the same time, the difficulty of poetically treating a subject, which presented disease in all its associations, is one of the most just and ordinary topics of his praise. Of the triumphs of poetry over such difficulty, he had no doubt high precedents, to shew that strong and true delineations of phy