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LIFE OF ARMSTRONG,
BY MR. CHALAERS.
THESE scanty materials are taken principally from Mr. Nichols's Life of Bowyer, and the Biographical Dictionary. To the former they were communi. cated, however sparingly, by the friends of Dr. Armstrong.
He was born in the parish of Castleton in Roxburghshire, where his father and brother were clergymen : and having compleated his education at the university of Edinburgh, took his degree in physic, Feb. 4, 1732', with much reputation. His thesis De Tabe purulente was published as usual.
He appears to have courted the Muses while a student: his descriptive sketch in imitation of Shakespeare was one of his first attempts, and received the cordial approbation of Thonson, Mallet, and Young. Mallet, he informs us, intended to have published it, but altered his mind. His other imitations of Shakespeare were part of an unfinished tragedy written at a very early age. Much of his time, if we may judge from his writings, was devoted to the study of polite literature, and although he cannot be said to have cutered deeply into any particular branch, he was more than a superficial connoisseur in painting, statuary, and music,
At what time he came to London is uncertain, but in 1735, he published an oc. tavo pamphlet, without his name, entitled An Essay for abridging the Study of Physic: to which is added a Dialogue between Hygeia, Mercury, and Pluto, relating to the Practice of Physic, as it is mapaged by a certain illustrious So. ciety. As also an Epistle from Usbeck the Persian, to Joshua Ward, esq. It is de. dicated to the “Antacademic Philosophers, to the generous despisers of the schools, to the deservedly-celebrated Joshua Ward, John Moor, and the rest of the nu. merous sect of inspired physicians.” The Essay, which has been lately reprinted in Dilly's Repository, is an humourous attack on quacks and quackery, with al. lusions to the neglect of medical education among the practising apothecaries ;
1 Three days after he sent a copy of his thesis to sir Hans Sloane, accompanied by a handsume Latin letter, now in the British Museum. I find in the same repository a paper written by him in 1744 on the alcalescent disposition of animal Auids, which appears to have been read in the Royal Society, but not published, c.
but the author had exhausted his wit in it, and the Dialogue and Epistle are con. sequently fat and insipid.
In 1737, he published A Synopsis of the History and Care of the Venereal Disease, probably as an introduction to practice in that lucrative branch: but it was unfortunately followed by his poem, The Economy of Love, which, al. though it enjoyed a rapid sale, has been very properly excluded from every collection of poetry, and is supposed to have impeded his professional career. Ia 1741, we find him soliciting Dr. Birch's recommendation to Dr. Mead, that he might be appointed physician to the forces then going to the West Indies.
His celebrated poem, The Art of Preserving Health, appeared in 1744, and contributed highly to his fame as a poet. Dr. Warton, in bis Reflections on Di: dactic Poetry, annexed to his edition of Virgil, observed that “ To describe so difficult a thivg, gracefully and poetically, as the effects of distemper on the buman body, was reserved for Dr. Armstrong, who accordingly hath nobly executed it at the end of the third book of his Art of Prescrving Health, where he hath given us that pathetic account of the sweating sickness. There is a classical core rectness and closeness of style in this poem 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 1746, he was appointed one of the physicians to tRe hospital for lame and sick soldiers behind Buckingham-house. ln 1751, he published his poem op Be. nevolence, in folio, a production which seems to 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, is a lively and spirited imitation of Pope, and the first production in which our author began to view men and manners with a splenetic eye. In 1758, he published Sketches, or Essays on Various Subjects, under the fictitious name of Lancelot Temple, esą. In some of these he is supposed to have been assisted by the celebrated John Wilkes, with whom he lived in habits of intimacy. What Mr. Wilkes contributed we are not told, but this gentleman, with all his moral failings had a more chaste classical taste and a purer vein of humour than we find in these Sketches, which are deformed by a perpetual flow of affectation, a struggle to say smart things, and above all a most disgusting repetition of vulgar oaths and exclamations. This practice, so unworthy of a gentleman or a scholar, seems to har, predominated in Dr. Armstrong's conversation, and is not unsparingly scattered through all bis works, with the exception of his Art of Preserving Health. It incurred the just censure of the critics of his day, with whom, for this reasou, he could never be reconciled,
lo 1760, he was appointed physician to the army in Germany, where in 1701 he wrote a poem called Day, addressed to Mr. Wilkes. It was published in the same year, probably by some person to whom Mr. Wilkes had lent it. The edi. tor, in his prefatory advertisement, professes to lament that it is not in his power
to present the public with a more perfect copy of this spirited letter, He rentures - to publish it exactly as it came into his hands, without the knowledge or consen
of the author, or of the gentleman to whom it is addressed. His sole motive is to
communicate to others the pleasure he has received from a work of taste and ge. nius. He thinks himself secure of the thanks of the public, and hopes this farther advantage will attend the present publication, that it will soon be followed by a correct and compleat edition from the author's own manuscript.
All this is somewhat mysterious, but there will not, however, be much injus. tice in supposing that Mr. Wilkes conveyed to the press as much of this Epistle as he thought would do credit to the author and to himself. It is certain the poem was published by Andrew Miller who was well acquainted with Dr. Armstrong, and would not have joined in any attempt to injure his fame or property. The poem contains many striking allusions to manners and objects of taste, but the versification is frequently careless: the author did not think proper to add it to bis collected works, nor was it ever published in a more correct form.
In this poem he was supposed to reflect on Churchill, but in a manner so distant that few except of Churchill's irascible temper could have laid hold of any cause of offence. This libeller, however, retorted on our author in The Journey, with an accusation of ingratitude, the meaning of which is said to have been, that Dr. Armstrong forgot certain pecuniary obligations he owed to Mr. Wilkes. About the same time a coolness took between place Dr. Armstrong and Mr. Wilkes on political grounds. Armstrong not only serving under government as an armyphysician, but he was also a Scotchman, and could not help resenting the indignity which Wilkes was perpetually attempting to throw on that nation in his North Briton. On this account they appear to have continued at variance as late as the year 1773, when our author called Wilkes to accouut for some reflections on his character which he suspected he had written in bis favourite vehicle, the Public Advertiser. The conversation which passed on this occasion was lately published in the Gentleman's Magazine (1792), and is said to have been copied from minutes taken the same afternoon, April 7, 1773, and sent to a friend : but as the doctor makes by far the worst figure in the dialogue, it can be no secret by whom the minutes were taken, and afterwards published. The contests, how• ever, of Wilkes and his friends are of very little moment: there appears to have been no sound principle of friendship among them, and no ties which they did not think themselves at liberty to violate when it suited their interest.
After the peace, Dr. Armstrong resided some years in London, where his practice was confined to a small circle, but where he was respected as a man of general knowledge and taste, and an agreeable companion. In 1770, he published two volumes of Miscellanies, containing the articles already mentioned, except the Economy of Love (an edition of which he corrected for separate publication in 1768) and his Epistle to Mr. Wilkes. The new articles were, the Imitations of Shakespeare and Spenser, the Universal Almanac, and the Forced Marriage, a tragedy, which was offered to Garrick about the year 1754, and rejected. A second part of his Sketches was likewise added to these volumes, and appeared to every delicate and judicious mind, a3 rambling and improper as the first. “I know not,” says Dr. Beattie to his friend sir William Forbes, " what is the matter with Armstrong, but he seems to have conceived a rooted aversion at the whole human race, except a few friends, who, it seems, are dead. He sets the public opinion at defance: a piece of boldoess, which neither Virgil nor Horace
were ever so shameless as to acknowledge. I do not think that Dr. Armstrong has any cause to complain of the public: his Art of Health is not indeed a popuJar poem, but it is very much liked, and has often been printed. It will make him known and esteemed by posterity: and I presume he will be more esteemed if all his other works perish with him. In his Sketches, indeed, are many sensible and some striking remarks : but they breathe such a rancorous and contemptuous spirit, and abouud so much in odious vulgarisms and colloquial execrations, that in reading we are as often disgusted as pleased. I know not what to say of his Univeral Almanac; it seems to me an attempt at humour, but such humour is either too high or too low for my comprehension. The plan of his tragedy, called The Forced Marriage, is both obscure and improbable: yet there are good strokes in it, particularly in the last scene."
In 1771, he published another extraordinary effusion of spleen, under the title of A short Ramble through some parts of France and Italy, and with his assup. ed name of Lancelot Temple. This ramble he took in company with Mr. Fuseli, the celebrated painter, who speaks highly in favour of the general benevolence of his character. In 1773, under his own name, and unfortunately for his reputation, appeared a quarto pamphlet of Medical Essays, in which, while he condemns theory, he plunges into all the uncertainties of theoretical conjec. tures. He complains, likewise, in a very coarse style, of the neglect he met with as a physician, and the severity with which he was treated as an author, and appears to write with a temper soured by disappointment in all his pursuits.
He died at his house in Russell-street, Covent Garden, on Sept. 7, 1779. His death was attributed to an accidental contusion in his thigh, while getting into the carriage which brought him to town from a visit in Lincolnshire. To the surprise of his friends, who thought that poverty was the foundation of his frequent complaints, he left behind him more than three thousand pounds, sared out of a very moderate incoine arising principally from his half-pay,
His character is said to have been that of a man of learning and genius, of considerable abilities in his profession, of great benevolence and goodness of heart, fond of associating with men of parts and genius, but indolent and inactive, and therefore totally unqualified to employ the means that usually lead to medical enployment, or to make his way through a crowd of competitors. An intimate friendship always subsisted between him and Thomson the poet; as well as with other gentlemen of learning and genius; and he was intimate with, and respected by sir John Pringle, at the time of his death. In 1753, Dr. Theobald addressed two Latin Odes, Ad ingenuum virum, tum medicis, tum poeticis facultatibus præstantem, Johannem Armstrong, M. D'.
Dr. Armstrong's fame as a poct must depend entirely on his Art of Preserving
2 He had been acquainted with Mr. Fuseli for many years; and Mr. Isaac Reed informed me that it is to this gentleman he alludes in the following passage in one of his Sketches, published in 1770, On the Influence of Climate upon Genius.--"As to history (painting) itself, besides some pro. mising specimens of it at home, perhaps even this barren age has produced a genius, pot indeed of British growth; unpatronized, and at preseut almost unknown; who may live to astonish, to territy, and delight all Europe.” C.
3 Nichols' Life of Botyer, p. 081, 292, 4to. edit. I am happy to inform my readers, that they may soon expect an enlarged edition of this valuable collection of literary history, in four volumes Svo. C.
• Ibid. p. 583.
Health, which, although liable to some of the objections usually offered against die
While the vital fire
s I have great pleasure in referring the reader to an elaborate criticism on this poem, by Dr. Aikin. prefixed to an ornamented edition, published by Messrs. Cadelland Davies in 1803.