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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 1880–1918.rnVol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake

John Armstrong (1709–1779)

Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury

[John Armstrong was born in Liddesdale about the year 1709, and died in London in 1779. His poetical works, which here alone concern us, were The Economy of Love, 1739, The Art of Preserving Health, 1744, and some slight pieces published in volumes of miscellanies later.]

ARMSTRONG is, beyond all doubt, the most remarkable poet of the school of Thomson. It would appear that the style in his case was not the result merely of imitation of the author of The Seasons, but came from a similar cause, the study at once of the Queen Anne men and of older writers. Both Shakespeare and Spenser were sufficiently attractive to Armstrong when he was quite a boy to induce him to imitate them, and though the imitations show more zeal than appreciation, they have some merit. The Economy of Love, from which no extracts can here be given, contains many stately verses, and some which exhibit considerable novelty of structure. On the whole Armstrong’s versification and language are Thomsonian. The blemishes of that style, such as the ridiculous classicism which calls a cold bath a ‘gelid cistern,’ and so forth, are present in large measure. But the merits of abundant fancy, of surprising range of illustration, and of a certain starched grace which is not unattractive, are present likewise. It would be difficult to find a more unsuitable subject for poetry than the art of preserving health: yet in treating it Armstrong has managed to produce many passages which lovers and students of blank verse cannot afford to disdain. His vigour is unquestionable, and his skill is by no means of an every-day order. The poem however is deformed, not merely by the unavoidable drawbacks of its subject, but by the insertion of a large mass of unnecessary and now obsolete technicalities, which could at no time have added to its attractions, and which now make parts of it nearly unreadable. Here and there, too, we are offended by the defect which Armstrong shares with Swift and with Smollett, the tendency to indulge in merely nauseous details. On the whole however the merits of The Art of Preserving Health far outweigh its defects. It may indeed be urged by a devil’s advocate that it is but a left-handed compliment to say that a man has done better than could be expected a task which, as sense and taste should have shown him, ought not to have been attempted at all. But Armstrong must always have, with competent judges, the praise which belongs to an author who has a distinct and peculiar grasp of a great poetical form. His rhymed verse is on the whole very inferior to his blank. The rhymes are frequently careless, and the poet’s ear does not seem to have taught him how to construct couplets with the proper variety and continuity of cadence. His satire however, if a little conventional, is sometimes vigorous, and a specimen of the poem entitled Taste is therefore given here.