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JOHN ARMSTRONG was born in 1709, in the parish of Castleton, Roxburghshire, a parish of which his father was minister. He was educated at the university of Edinburgh, took his medical degree in 1732, and soon afterwards commenced the practice of his profession in London, " the proper place,” says one of his biographers, ** for a man of accomplishments.” His success as a physician was by no means great; necessity, perhaps, as well as inclination, prompted the employment of his pen. Some medical pamphlets, and a licentious production in verse, "the Economy of Love," which at a more matured age he “revised and corrected," — were followed, in 1744, by the great work on which his reputation depends,—“The Art of Preserving Health." The publication of this poem was succeeded by one on “Benevolence," another on “ Taste," and another entitled Day," written in Germany, where the author was physician to the forces. From the year 1763 he continued to reside in London, cultivating intercourse with the Muses and their favourites, rather than striving to attain distinction in his professional career. He attributes his failure less to his natural indolence and inactivity than to a dislike to adopt the petty artifices by which popularity is achieved; "he could not intrigue with nurses, nor associate with the various knots of pert, insipid, well-bred, impertinent, good-humoured, malicious gossips that are often found so useful in introducing a young physician into practice." It is certain, however, that he was indisposed to exertion in ways more worthy of greatness; and the portrait drawn of him by his friend Thomson, in the “ Castle of Indolence,” affords collateral proof that he preferred a life of " lazy ease” to one of labour and excitement:
" With him was sometimes join'd in silent walk
He never uttered word, sare when first shone
The glittering star of eve-thank heaven, the day is done." Armstrong died in 1779; entitled to the gratitude of mankind for the useful lessons he had inculcated, in a form which renders them at once attractive and impressive.
It is unnecessary here to comment upon any of his productions, except that which established his fame, and alone sustains it. The work was one that required no ordinary skill, judgment, and genius. To describe the various ailments of the human frame, and the remedies suggested by knowledge and experience, in language at once clear, comprehensive, graceful, and poetical, appears a task so full of difficulties, that the reader must be made acquainted with the manner in which they have been overcome to be at all conscious of the triumph achieved by the physician-poet. “The Art of Preserving Health" is divided into four books; they treat of AIR, DIET, EXERCISE, and THE PASSIONs; and the object of the writer is to explain how much delight and enjoyment each is capable of yielding, but how necessary it is to give to each its proper direction, that each may work its natural and fitting purpose. Jf some of the topics are in themselves interesting and suited to verse, others would seem of a directly opposite character: loathsome diseases, disgusting habits, frightful appearances, are however so treated as to lose all that repulses, and indeed invite to the consideration how they are to be avoided. He commenced his work with a full consciousness of the difficulties against which he had to contend, striving
in clear and animated song
Dry philosophic precepts to convey," and he proceeded, in a clear and lucid style, setting aside all pedantic jargon, all the set phrases of the schools, to write so that what he wrote might be comprehended.
In pursuing, however, with firm purpose the main object of his design, he by no means overlooked the graces and descriptions that might impress upon the mind of the general reader the more weighty didactic truths it was his business to inculcate. The poem abounds in passages of exceeding beauty; the external appearances of nature are described with as much elegance as accuracy; and his comments on the workings of the human mind, when enslaved by habit or passion, are as vigorous as just. The meanest or most unpleasing topic upon which he treats becomes dignified and impressive; the naiads of renowned rivers rehearse the praises of a draught of water; and “perspiration
What does not fade? the tower that long had stood
Again involve the desolate abyss :
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 crystal rivulet, that o'er A stony channel rolls its rapid maze, 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 such the stream On whose Arcadian banks I first drew air, Liddel; till now, except in Doric lays Tun'd to her murmurs by her love-sick swains, Unknown in song; though not a purer stream, Through meads 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 charm'd with toys, In thy transparent eddies have I lav'd: Oft trac'd 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 : while vernal clouds And tepid gales obscur'd the ruffled pool,
How to live happiest; how avoid the pains, The disappointments, and disgusts of those Who would in pleasure all their hours employ; The precepts here of a divine old man I could recite. Though old, he still retain'd His manly sense, and energy of mind. Virtuous and wise he was, but not severe; He still remember'd that he once was young: His easy presence check'd no decent joy. Him even the dissolute admir'd; for he A graceful looseness when he pleas'd put on, And laughing could instruct. Much had he read, Much more had seen : he studied from the life, And in th' original perus'd mankind.
Vers'd in the woes and vanities of life, He pitied man: and much he pitied those Whom falsely-smiling fate has curs’d with means To dissipate their days in quest of joy. “ Our aim is happiness; 'tis yours, 'tis mine," He said; “'tis the pursuit of all that live: Yet few attain it, if 'twas e'er attain'd. But they the widest wander from the mark, Who through the flowery paths of sauntering joy Seek this coy goddess ; that from stage to stage Invites us still, but shifts as we pursue. For, not to name the pains that pleasure brings To counterpoise itself, relentless fate Forbids that we through gay voluptuous wilds Should ever roam : and were the fates more kind, Our narrow luxuries would soon grow stale: Were these exhaustless, nature would grow sick, And, cloy'd with pleasure, squeamishly complain That all is vanity, and life a dream. Let nature rest: be busy for yourself, And for your friend; be busy even in vain, Rather than tease her sated appetites. Who never fasts, no banquet e'er enjoys; Who never toils or watches, never sleeps. Let nature rest : and when the taste of joy Grows keen, indulge; but shun satiety.
“ 'Tis not for mortals always to be blest. But him the least the dull or painful hours Of life oppress, whom sober sense conducts,
Virtue and sense I mean not to disjoin ;
“ Virtue, the strength and beauty of the soul,
Thus, in his graver vein, the friendly sage
There is a charm, a power that sways the breast,