The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 11. Conscious or half-conscious Burlesque Verse; John Armstrong; His Art of Preserving Health
The peculiar “tumid and gorgeous” style of the eighteenth century in blank verse, in which Johnson professed to find the only excuse—and that inadequate—for the metre he detested, not unfrequently gives the wary critic a certain pause before he absolutely excludes the notion of conscious or half-conscious burlesque on the part of its practitioners. There had been no doubt about this burlesque in the case of The Splendid Shilling, which, undoubtedly, had led not a few of them to Milton. Even in Thomson, a later and much stronger influence —in fact, one which directly mastered most blank-verse writers after 1726—it is not certain whether the temper which avowedly exists in The Castle of Indolence may not sometimes lie concealed in The Seasons. And John Armstrong, Thomson’s intimate friend and more than countryman—for their birthplaces, just inside the Border, were within a few miles of each other—one of the garrison invalids of the castle itself, was, by common consent of tradition, a remarkable specimen of that compound of saturnine, and even churlish, humour with real kindliness, which Scotsmen have not been indisposed to acknowledge as a national characteristic. He seems to have pleaded actual burlesque intent for his péché de jeunesse (as it would be called in French literary history), The Economy of Love. But it is difficult to discern much difference of style between this and the more respectable Art of Preserving Health. The preposterous latinising, which has made his “gelid cistern” for “cold bath” a stock quotation, and the buckram stiffness of style which usually goes with it, appear in both. His wellknown contribution to The Castle of Indolence itself is avowed burlesque, and not unhappy; while, though his imitations of Shakespeare are about as much like Shakespeare as they are like Walt Whitman, his Epistle to Wilkes, from the army in Germany to which he was attached, is not without good touches. He seems to have possessed literary, if not exactly poetical, power, but to have been the victim of personal bad taste, exaggerating a particular bad taste of the time.