Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Armstrong, John (1709-1779)

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For works with similar titles, see John Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG, JOHN, M.D. (1709–1779), poet, physician, and essayist, was born in the parish of Castleton, Roxburghshire, about the year 1709. His father was a clergyman. He studied at Edinburgh University, and took his degree of M.D. on 4 Feb. 1732, composing for the occasion a 'Dissertatio de Tabe Purulenta,' which he published at Edinburgh in the same year, with a dedication to Sir Hans Sloane. A Latin letter which the author sent to Sir Hans Sloane with a copy of the thesis is preserved in the British Museum (MS. Sloane, 4036). Before 1735 Armstrong was practising medicine in London.

At an early age Armstrong began to cultivate poetry. He tells us that the verses entitled 'Winter' (an 'imitation of Shakespeare'), first published in 1770, were written in 1725. Thomson, Mallet, Aaron Hill, and Young received manuscript copies of the verses from the youthful writer, and expressed to him their congratulations. Mallet promised to print the piece, but afterwards changed his mind.

In 1734 Armstrong published, in vol. ii. of the 'Edinburgh Medical Essays,' an essay on 'Penetrating Topic Medicines;' and in the same year he wrote a paper (read before the Royal Society on 30 Jan. 1735, and preserved among the Sloane MSS., No. 4433) on the 'Alcalescent Disposition of Animal Fluids.' His next production was a satirical pamphlet entitled 'Essay for abridging the Study of Physick,' 1735, 8vo. In the following year he made his first appearance as a poet. The 'Œconomy of Love,' 1736, 8vo, was published anonymously; and it is indeed a production which not many men would care to claim. A more nauseous piece of work could not easily be found. When the author reissued the poem in 1768, he had the good sense to cancel some of the worst passages. It was followed by a 'Synopsis of the History and Cure of Venereal Diseases.' In 1741 Armstrong solicited Dr. Birch's recommendation to Dr. Mead for the appointment of physician to the troops going to the West Indies (Sloane MS. 4300).

Writing many years afterwards, in 1773, he ascribes his limited success in his profession to the fact that 'he could neither tell a heap of lies in his own praise wherever he went; nor intrigue with nurses; nor associate, much less assimilate, with the various knots of pert insipid, lively stupid, well-bred impertinent, good-humoured malicious, obliging deceitful, waspy drivelling gossips; nor enter into juntos with people who were not to his liking' (Medical Essays). Habitual inertness and a splenetic temperament were probably the real drawbacks to his advancement. Dr. Beattie, in a letter to Sir William Forbes, writes: 'I know not what is the matter with Armstrong, but he seems to have conceived a rooted aversion against the whole human race, except a few friends, which it seems are dead.' In Thomson's 'Castle of Indolence' there is a stanza which is supposed to refer to Armstrong:—

   With him was sometimes join'd, 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, inly thrill'd, he wandered all alone
   And on himself his pensive fury wroke,
       Nor ever utter'd word, save when first shone
The glittering star of eve—'Thank Heaven! the day is done.'

In 1744 appeared the 'Art of preserving Health,' a didactic poem in four books, which sprang at once into popularity, and has passed through several editions down to our own day. In the class of poetry to which it belongs, the 'Art of preserving Health' holds a distinguished place. No writer of the eighteenth century had so masterful a grasp of blank verse as is shown in parts of this poem. The powerful passage descriptive of the plague (book iii.) has been highly praised. As in all didactic poetry, the practical directions are of little interest; but those who value austere imagination and weighty diction cannot afford to neglect Armstrong's masterpiece.

He was appointed, in February 1746, a physician to the Hospital for Lame, Maimed, and Sick Soldiers in London. Five years later (1751) he published 'Benevolence, an Epistle,' which added little to his fame; and in 1753 'Taste, an Epistle to a young Critic,' readable but acrimonious. At this time Dr, Theobald addressed to him two complimentary Latin odes. Armstrong's next venture was a tragedy, 'The Forced Marriage,' written in 1754, but not published until 1770. Much more interesting are the 'Sketches or Essays on various subjects, in two parts,' published in 1758 under the pseudonym of Launcelot Temple. It has been suggested—without evidence—that he was assisted in the composition of these essays by Wilkes, with whom he was nearly acquainted for many years. Always terse, often original, and sometimes brilliant, Armstrong's prose is undeserving of the neglect into which it has fallen.

In 1760 he received the post of physician to the army in Germany. Writing to Wilkes on 3 Nov. of that year, he enclosed a poetical epistle entitled 'Day,' which was published in the following year. A letter in the 'Public Advertiser' of 23 March 1773 accused Wilkes of having published it against the author's wish. In the following number appeared a reply, signed 'Truth,' denying the charge; and this was followed, on 1 April, by a letter, signed 'Nox,' wherein the writer declared that the verses were published at Armstrong's repeated requests and against Wilkes's advice. Several years afterwards there appeared in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' (January 1792) the notes of a conversation between Wilkes and Armstrong on the subject of the correspondence in the 'Public Advertiser.' According to this report Armstrong accused Wilkes of having written the three letters in question, Wilkes denying the charge with caustic pleasantry. Whether the letters were written by Wilkes, or whether any such conversation ever occurred, is extremely doubtful; but as to the publication of 'Day' we are able to refer to Armstrong's unpublished letters in the valuable 'Wilkes Correspondence' acquired a few years ago by the British Museum (Add. MS 30867). On 3 Nov. 1760, When sending the epistle to Wilkes, he writes:—'I … send you letters by the brace. If you approve of that in rhyme, I wish all the people in Britain and Ireland would read it, that I might be indulged in the vanity of being known for your friend. But if you think it worthy of Mr. Bowyer's press, don't submit it to that severe operation till everything you find wrong in it is altered.' Wilkes ruthlessly excised whatever he thought to be inferior, and exposed a tattered version to the public, indicating the cancelled passages by stars. Moreover, after sending the epistle to press, he seems not to have troubled himself to make any communication on the subject with the author; for on 29 Oct. 1762, unaware that the epistle was already in print, Armstrong wrote from abroad to ask Wilkes to hand over to Millar, the bookseller, 'one strayed ode—item one elegy—item one epistle entitled a "Day," which I shall be glad to clear of a few clouds. You must know I kept only the first copy, which is mislaid, or more probably lost.' The next letter broke off, once for all, the connection between the friends. We print it, for the first time, from Add. MS. 30867, p. 216:—'London, 17 Sept. 1763. Sir,—I thank you for the honour of a letter, and continue sensible of every mark of friendship I have received from you, which makes me regret it the more that you have for ever deprived me of the pleasure of your conversation. For I cannot with honour or decency associate myself with one who has distinguished himself by abusing my country. I am with all due sincerity, Sir, your most humble servant, John Armstrong.' Had it not been for the publication of the unfortunate 'Day,' he would probably have continued on familiar terms with Wilkes, who (it is supposed) had procured him the post of physician to the army, and to whom he was certainly indebted for much pecuniary help. In some very vigorous lines of Churchill's posthumous satire, 'A Journey,' published in 1764, Armstrong is held up to unsparing ridicule:—

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 letter'd Scot.

One writer after another has asserted that Churchill's attack was provoked by some reflections on himself in 'Day,' but the reader must be extraordinarily lynx-eyed to discover any allusion to Churchill in Armstrong's epistle. It is far more probable that the lines were written at the suggestion of Wilkes, who was on terms of close intimacy with the satirist.

At the recall of the troops from Germany Armstrong returned to London, receiving half-pay for the rest of his life. In 1770 he published, in two volumes of 'Miscellanies,' such works in verse and prose as he wished to preserve. He took this opportunity of printing in his own name the four concluding stanzas of the first canto of the 'Castle of Indolence.' Accompanied by Fuseli, he started in the same year for a tour in France and Italy. At Leghorn he visited Smollett, who was fast sinking into his grave. Under the title of 'A Short Ramble through France and Italy,' 1771, he published some desultory notes taken on the journey. In 1773 he published his last work, 'Medical Essays,' in which he coarsely charges his professional brethren with incompetency and servility.

Armstrong died at his house in Russell Street, Covent Garden, on 7 Sept. 1779, from the effects of a fall. He had been staying in Lincolnshire, and as he was preparing to return home his foot slipped when he was stepping into his carriage. To the surprise of everybody he left the sum of 3,000l. As his pension and his very small practice were his sole means of support, he must have lived somewhat parsimoniously.

There is a mezzotint portrait of him, from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, inscribed 'John Armstrong, M.D. The suffrage of the wise, the praise that's worth competition is attained by sense alone and dignity of mind.' One who knew him well. Dr. Cuming, of Dorchester, has set down his character briefly as follows:—'He always appeared to me (and I was confirmed in this opinion by that of his most intimate friends) 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 employment, or to elbow his way through a crowd of competitors.'

[The original editions of his works; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, ii. 275, &c.; Public Advertiser, 23 and 24 March and 1 April 1773; Gentleman's Magazine, January 1792; Add. MSS. 30867 and 30875.]

A. H. B.