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Significant Scots
John Armstrong M.D.


ARMSTRONG, JOHN, M.D. author of the well-known poem, entitled, "The Art of Preserving Health," was born, about 1709, in the parish of Castleton, Roxburghshire, where his father and brother were successively ministers. He might almost be styled a poet by right of birth-place, for the parish of Castleton is simply the region of Liddesdale, so renowned for its heroic lays, the records of deeds performed by the border rievers, among whom the family of the poet bore a distinguished rank. The rude and predatory character of this district had, however, passed away before the commencement of the eighteenth century; and young Armstrong, though his lullabies were no doubt those fine old ballads which have since been published by Sir Walter Scott, seems to have drawn from them but little of his inspiration. It was as yet the fashion to look upon legendary verses as only fit for nurses and children; and nothing was thought worthy of the term poetry, unless it were presented in trim artificial language, after the manner of some distinguished classic writer. It is therefore by no means surprising, that Armstrong, though born and cradled in a land full of beautiful traditionary poetry, looked upon it all, after he had become an educated man, as only Doric trash, and found his Tempe in the bowers of Twickenham instead of the lonely heaths of Liddesdale.

The only allusion to his native scene is to be found in the following passage of "The Art of Preserving Health;" a warm and elegant apostrophe, and no doubt testifying his affectionate recollection of

-- the school-boy spot,
We ne’er forget, though there we are forgot,—

but still deficient in characteristic painting, and unpardonably so in its total silence as to the romantic history of the country, and its spirit-stirring ballads.

But if the breathless chase o’er hill and dale
Exceed your strength, a sport of less fatigue
,
Not less delightful, the prolific stream
Affords. The chrystal rivulet that o’er
A stony channel rolls its rapid surge,
Swarms with the silver fry. Such, through the bounds
Of pastoral Stafford, runs the brawling Trent;
Such Eden, sprung from Cumbrian mountains, such
The Esk o’erhung with woods: and each the stream,
On whose Arcadian banks I first drew air,
Liddal, till now, except in Doric lays
Tuned to her murmurs by her love-sick swains,
Unknown in song: though not a purer stream,
Through woods more flowery, more romantic groves,
Rolls toward the western main. Hail, sacred flood!
May still thy hospitable swains be blest
In rural innocence; thy mountains still
Teem with the fleecy race; thy tuneful woods
For ever flourish; and thy vales look gay
With painted meadows, and the golden grain!
Oft with thy blooming sons, when life was new,
Sportive and petulant, and charmed with toys,
In thy transparent eddies have I laved:
Oft traced with patient steps thy fairy banks,
With the well-imitated fly to hook
The eager trout, and with the slender line
And yielding rod solicit to the shore
The struggling panting prey; white vernal clouds—
And tepid gales obscured the ruffled pool,
And from the deeps called forth the wanton swarms.

How different would have been the allusions of a Leyden or a Scott to the land of Jock o’ the Side and Hobbie Noble!

Armstrong was educated for the medical profession at the university of Edinburgh, under the elder Monro. In 1732, he took his degrees as M. D. with much reputation, the subject of his treatise being Tabea Purulenta. He had ere this period addicted himself to the composition of verses. We are informed, that, to relieve the tedium of a winter spent in "a wild romantic country" - probably Liddesdale—he wrote what he intended for an imitation of Shakespeare, but which turned out to resemble rather the poem of "Winter," then just published by Thomson. The bard of the Seasons, hearing of this composition, which so strangely and so accidentally resembled his own, procured a sight of it by means of a mutual friend, and, being much pleased with it, brought it under the notice of Mr David Mallet, Mr Aaron Hill, and Dr Young, all of whom joined with him in thinking it a work of genius. Mallet even requested the consent of the author to its publication, and undertook that duty, though he afterwards gave up the design.

Armstrong was probably led by this flattering circumstance to try his fortune in London, where his countrymen Thomson and Mallet had already gained literary distinction. In 1735, he is found publishing, in that capital, a humorous attack upon empirics, in the manner of Lucian, entitled, "An Essay for abridging the study of physic, to which is added, A Dialogue betwixt, Hygeia, Mercury, and Pluto, relating to the Practice of Physic, as it is managed by a certain illustrious Society; and an Epistle from Usbeck the Persian to Joshua Ward, Esq." The essay, besides its sarcastic remarks on quacks and quackery, contains many allusions to the neglect of medical education among the practising apothecaries; but the author had exhausted his wit in it, and the dialogue and epistle are consequently flat and insipid. In 1737, he published a serious professional piece, styled, "A Synopsis of the History and Cure of the Venereal Disease," 8vo., inscribed in an ingenious dedication to Dr Alexander Stuart, as to "a person who had an indisputable right to judge severely of the performance presented to him." He probably designed the work as an introduction to practice in this branch of the medical profession; but it was unfortunately followed by his poem, entitled, "The Economy of Love," which, though said to have been designed as merely a burlesque upon certain didactic writers, was justly condemned for its warm and alluring pictures, and its tendency to inflame the passions of youth. It appears by one of the "Cases of Literary Property," that Andrew Millar, the bookseller, paid fifty pounds for the copy-right of this poem; a sum ill-gained, for the work greatly diminished the reputation of the author. After it had passed through many editions, he published one, in 1768, in which the youthful luxuriances that had given offence to better minds were carefully pruned.

In 1744, Dr Armstrong made some amends for this indiscretion, by publishing "The Art of Preserving Health," a didactic poem in blank verse, extending through four books, each of which contains a particular branch of the subject. This very meritorious work raised his reputation to a height which his subsequent efforts scarcely sustained. It is written in a taste which would not now be considered very pure, or elegant; but yet, when the subject and the age are considered, there is amazingly little to be condemned. Dr Warton has justly remarked the refined terms in which the poet, at the end of his third book, has described an English plague of the fifteenth century, entitled, "The Sweating Sickness." "There is a classical correctness and closeness of style in this poem," says Dr Warton, "that are truly admirable, and the subject is raised and adorned by numberless poetical images." Dr Mackenzie, in his History of Health, bestowed similar praises on this poem, which was indeed every where read and admired.

In 1741, Armstrong solicited the patronage of Dr Birch, to be appointed physician to the fleet, then about to sail for the West Indies; but he does not seem to have obtained the object of his desire. In 1746, when established in reputation by his Art of Preserving Health, he was appointed one of the physicians to the hospital for lame and sick soldiers behind Buckingham house. In 1751, he published his poem on "Benevolence," in folio, a production which seems to have come from the heart, and contains sentiments which could have been expressed with equal ardour only by one who felt them. His "Taste, an epistle to a young critic," 1753, 4to, is a lively and spirited imitation of Pope, and the first production in which Armstrong began to view men and manners with a splenetic eye.

His next work was less meritorious. It was entitled "Sketches or Essays on various subjects," and appeared under the fictitious name of Lancelot Temple, Esq. The critical examinators of Dr Armstrong’s merits allow to this work the credit of exhibiting much humour and knowledge of the world, but find it deformed by a perpetual flow of affectation, a struggle to say smart things, and, above all, a disgusting repetition of vulgar oaths and exclamations—forms of expression to which the poet, it seems, was also much addicted in conversation. In some of these sketches, Armstrong is said to have had assistance from the notorious John Wilkes, with whom he lived in habits of intimacy; but it is certain that the contributions of this gentleman cannot have been great, as the work is much inferior to the literary style of the demagogue of Aylesbury, who, whatever might be his moral failings, is allowed to have had a chaste classical taste, and a pure vein of humour.

Armstrong had sufficient professional interest in 1760, to obtain the appointment of physician to the army in Germany. From that country he wrote "Day, a poem," addressed as an Epistle to John Wilkes, Esq. This lively piece, which professes to embody an account of all the proper indulgences, moral and physical, of twenty-four hours, was, it is said, published in an imperfect shape, by some clandestine editor. It was never added to the collected works of Dr Armstrong, till Dr Anderson admitted it into his edition of the British Poets. After the peace of 1763, Dr Armstrong returned to London, and resumed his practice, but with no eager desire of increasing the moderate competency he now enjoyed. He continued after this period rather to amuse than to exert himself in literary productions, chiefly spending his time in the society of men of wit and taste like himself. In 1771, he made a tour into France and Italy, in company with the celebrated Fuseli, who survived him for nearly fifty years, and always spoke highly of Dr Armstrong’s amiable character. In Italy he took a tender farewell of his friend Smollett, to whom he was much attached, and who died soon after. On returning home, he published an account of his travels, under the name of Lancelot Temple.

The latter years of Dr Armstrong’s life were embittered by one of those quarrels which, arising between persons formerly much attached, are at once the most envenomed, and the most productive of uneasiness to the parties. In his poem of Day, he had asked, among other things,

" What crazy scribbler reigns the present wit?"

which the poet Churchill very properly took to himself and resented in the following passage in his poem of "The Journey:"

Let them with Armstrong, taking leave of sense,
Read musty 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 lettered Scot;
Let them with Armstrong pass the term of light,
But not one hour of darkness; when the night
Suspends this mortal coil, when memory wakes,
When for our past misdoings conscience takes
A deep revenge, when by reflection led
She draws his curtains, and looks comfort dead,
Let every muse be gone; in vain he turns,
And tries to pray for sleep; as Aetna burns,
A more than Aetna in his coward breast,
And guilt, with vengeance armed, forbids to rest;
Though soft as plumage from young Zephyr’s wing
His couch seems hard, and no relief can bring;
Ingratitude hath planted daggers there,
No good man can deserve, no brave man bear.

We have no hesitation in saying that this severe satire was not justified either by the offence which called it forth, or by the circumstances on which it was founded. Wilkes, the associate of Churchill, had lent money to Armstrong on some occasion of peculiar distress. When the attacks of Wilkes upon Scotland led to animosities between the two friends, it was not to be expected that the recollection of a former obligation was necessarily to tie up the natural feelings of Dr Armstrong, and induce him to submit rather to the certain charge of meanness of spirit, than the possible imputation of ingratitude. Neither could Wilkes have fairly expected that the natural course of the quarrel was to be stayed by such a submission on the part of his former friend. It would have been equally mean for the obliged party to have tendered, and for the obliging party to have accepted such a submission. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Dr Armstrong, in giving way to resentment against Wilkes, was chargeable, properly, with no blame except that of giving way to resentment and if it is to be supposed, from the character of the poet in respect of irritability, that the resentment would have taken place whether there had been a debt of kindness standing undischarged between the parties or not, we cannot really see how this contingent circumstance can enhance his offence.

There is unfortunately too great reason to suppose, that, if the obligation tended to increase the blame of either party, it was that of Wilkes, who, from almost incontestable evidence, appears to have made a most ungenerous use of the advantage he had acquired over his former friend. Not only must he bear a portion of the guilt of Churchill’s satire, which could have only been written as a transcript of his feelings, and with his sanction, but he stands almost certainly guilty of a still more direct and scurrilous attack upon Dr Armstrong, which appeared in a much more insidious form. This was a series of articles in the well known Public Advertiser, commencing with a letter signed Dies, which appeared to proceed from an enemy of the patriot, but, in the opinion of Dr Armstrong, was written by the patriot himself:

"He (Wilkes)," says this writer, "always took more delight in exposing his friends than in hurting his enemies. I am assured that a very worthy and ingenious friend of this impostor trusted him with a jeu d’esprit of a poem, incorrect indeed, but which bore every mark of a true, though ungoverned genius. This poem, rough as it was, he carried to A. Millar, late bookseller in the Strand, and published it in his friend’s name, without his knowledge. This is a fact, Mr Printer; therefore, I think, Mr W. should let alone Scotch writers."

Occasion was taken in the next day’s publication to give a refutation of this pretended attack, in the following terms:

"Your correspondent, Sir, is pleased to appeal to a dead bookseller, I appeal to the living author, now in London. He desired the poem might be published: it was written for the public eye: he directed the bookseller to call on Mr W. for the copy. The bookseller produced his credentials, under the author’s own hand, upon which Mr W. gave him the manuscript of the poem. It was after-wards published in the kindest way for the author’s reputation, as a Fragment. I believe he will not choose to restore the passages, which were omitted in the first edition of 1760. When he does, the kindness, and perhaps the judgment of the editor will appear, I am told, in a very strong and favourable light. The poem was not published till the bookseller had received a second positive order for that purpose, from the author, after several objections to the publication had been transmitted to him in Germany, and amendments made by himself. It was a favourite child not without merit, although scarcely so much as the fond father imagined. Mr Churchill wrote the four following lines on that poem, which were never forgiven. They are in the Journey.

‘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.’
- TRUTH."

A week after, a letter signed "Nox," in the same tone with that signed "TRUTH," appeared in the Public Advertiser. It is impossible to doubt that Mr Wilkes was at the bottom of the whole plot, and either wrote the letters himself or employed his friend Churchill to do so. [This more particularly appears from the report of a conversation which took place on the 7th of April, between Dr Armstrong and Mr Wilkes, which appears to have been noted down on the same day by the latter, and was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, for 1792, thirteen years after the death of Dr Armstrong.

The incensed poet entered his former friend’s lodgings, in Prince’s Court, and, without the least ceremonial or compliment, commenced the following dialogue—which, as a curious piece of literary history, we have given entire:—

Dr Armstrong. Did you, Sir, write the letters in the Public Advertiser?

Mr Wilkes. - What letters do you mean, Doctor? There are many letters almost every day in the Public Advertiser.

Dr A. Sir, I mean the three letters about me, and Day, Day, Sir.

Mr W. You may ask the printer, Mr Woodfall. He has my orders to name me whenever he thinks it proper, as the author of every thing I write in his paper.

Dr. A. I believe you wrote all those letters.

Mr. W. What all three, Doctor? I am very roughly treated in one of them, in the first signed Dies.

Dr. A. I believe you wrote that to bring on the controversy. I am almost sure of it.

Mr. W. I hope you are truly informed in other things. I know better than to abuse myself in that manner, and I pity the author of such wretched stuff.

Dr A. Did you write the other letters, Sir?

Mr W. The proper person to inquire of is Mr Woodfall. I will not answer interragatories. My time would pass in a strange manner, if I was to answer every question which any gentleman chose to put to me about anonymous letters.

Mr A. Whoever has abused me, Sir, is a villain; and your endeavors, Sir, to set Scotland and England together are very bad.

Mr W. The Scots have done that thoroughly, Doctor, by their conduct here, particularly by their own nationality and the outrages of Lord Bute to so many English families. Whenever you think proper to call upon me in particular as a gentleman, you will find me most ready to answer the call.

Dr A. D—n Lord Bute! It had been better for Scotland he had never been born. He has done us infinite mischief.

Mr W. And us too; but I suppose we are not met for a dish of polities?

Dr A. No; but I wish there had been no union. I am sure England is the gainer by it.

Mr W. I will not make an essay on the advantages and disadvantages of the union.

Dr A. I hate politics; but I have been ill used by you, Dr Wilkes, on the occasion.

Mr W. On the contrary, Doctor, I was the injured friend.

Dr A. I thought you for many years the most amiable friend in the world, and loved your company the most; but you distinguished yourself by grossly abusing my countrymen in the North Briton - although I never read much of that paper.

Mr W. You passed your time, I am satisfied, much better. Who told you, Doctor, what particular numbers I wrote? It is droll, but the bitterest of these papers, which was attributed to me, was a description of Scotland, first printed in the last century, on Charles I.’s return from thence in 1635. Were you ever, Doctor, personally attacked by me? Were you not, although a Scotsman, at the very time of the North Briton, complimented by me, in conjunction with Churchill, in the best thing I wrote, the mock ‘Dedication to Mortimer?’

Dr A. To be praised along with such a writer, I think an abuse.

Mr W. The world thinks far otherwise of that wonderful genius Churchill; but you, Doctor, have sacrificed private friendship at the altar of politics. After many years of mutual intercourse of good offices, you broke every tie of friendship with me on no pretence but a suspicion, for you did not ask for proof, of my having abused your country, that country I have for years together heard you inveigh against, in the bitterest terms, for nastiness and nationality.

Dr A. I only did it in joke, Sir; you did it with bitterness; but it was my country.

Mr W. No man has abused England so much as Shakspeare, or France so much as Voltaire yet they remain the favourites of two great nations, conscious of their own superiority. Were you, Doctor, attacked by me in any one instance? Was not the most friendly correspondence carried on with you the whole time, till you broke it off by a letter, in 1763, in which you declared to me, that you could not with honour associate with one who had distinguished himself by abusing your country, and that you remained with all due sincerity? I remember that was the strange phrase.

Dr A. You never answered that letter, Sir.

Mr W. What answer could I give you, Doctor? You had put a period to the intercourse between us. I still continued to our common friends to speak of you in terms of respect, while you were grossly abusing me. You said to Boswell, Millar, and others, "I hope there is a hell, that Wilkes may lie in it."

Dr A. In a passion I might say so. People do not often speak their minds in a passion.

Mr W. I thought they generally did, Doctor!

Dr A. I was thoroughly provoked, although I still acknowledge my great pecuniary obligations to you- although I dare say, I would have got the money elsewhere.

Mr W. I was always happy to render you every service in my power; and I little imagined a liberal mind, like yours, could have been worked up by designing men to write me such a letter in answer to an affectionate one I sent you, in the prospect of your return.

Dr A. I was happier with you than any man in the world for a great many years, and complimented you not a little in the Day, and you did not write to me for a year and a half after that.

Mr W. Your memory does not serve you faithfully, Doctor. In three or four months at farthest, you had two or three letters from me together, on your return to the headquarters of the army. I am abused in Dies for that publication, and the manner, both of which you approved.

Dr A. I did so.

Mr W. I was abused at first, I am told, in the manuscript of Dies, for having sold the copy, and put the money in my pocket; but that charge was suppressed in the printed letter.

.Dr A. I know nothing of that, and will do you justice.

Mr W. Will you call upon Mr D.—, our common friend, your countryman, and ask him what he thinks of your conduct to me, if it has not been wholly unjustifiable?

Dr A. Have I your leave to ask Mr Woodfall in your name about the letters?

Mr W. I have already told you, Doctor, what directions he has from me. Take four-and-twenty hours to consider what you have to do, and let me know the result.

Dr A. I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time, Sir.

Mr W. It stands in no need of an apology, Doctor. I am glad to see you. Good morrow.

N. B. - These minutes were taken down the same afternoon, and sent to a friend.]

Armstrong died at his house in Russel Street, Covent Garden, September 7, 1779, in consequence of an accidental contusion in his thigh, received while getting into a carriage. He was found, to the surprise of the world, to have saved the sum of 2000 out of his moderate income, which for many years had consisted of nothing more than his half-pay.

Dr Armstrong was much beloved and respected by his friends for his gentle and amiable dispositions, as well as his extensive knowledge and abilities; but a kind of morbid sensibility preyed upon his temper, and a languid listlessness too frequently interrupted his intellectual efforts. With Thomson’s Castle of Indolence he is appropriately connected, both as a figure in the piece and as a contributor to the verse. The following is his portraiture: -

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, only thrilled, he wandered all alone,
And on himself his pensive fury wroke:
He never uttered word, save, when first shone
The glittering star of eve - "Thank heaven! The day is done!"

His contributions consist of four stanzas descriptive of the diseases to which the votaries of indolence finally become martyrs.

The rank of Dr Armstrong as a poet is fixed by his Art of Preserving Health, which is allowed to be among the best didactic poems in the language. It is true, this species of poetry was never considered among the highest, nor has it been able to retain its place among the tastes of a modern and more refined age. Armstrong, however, in having improved upon a mode of composition fashionable in his own time, must still be allowed considerable praise. "His style," according to the judgment of Dr Aikin, "is distinguished by its simplicity – by a free use of words which owe their strength to their plainness – by the rejection of ambitious ornaments, and a near approach to common phraseology. His sentences are generally short and easy; his sense clear and obvious. The full extent of his conceptions is taken in at the first glance; and there are no lofty mysteries to be unraveled by a repeated perusal. What keeps his language from being prosaic, is the vigour of his sentiments. He thinks boldly, feels strongly, and therefore expresses himself poetically. When the subject sinks, his style sinks with it; but he has for the most part excluded topics incapable either of vivid description, or of the oratory of sentiment. He had from nature a musical ear, whence his lines are scarcely ever harsh, though apparently without much study to render them smooth. On the whole, it may not be too much to assert, that no writer in blank verse can be found more free from stiffness and affectation, more energetic without harshness, and more dignified without formality."


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