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We come now to a short estimate of Armstrong's poetry. His imitations of Shakespeare are juvenile productions. The largest of them, a “Winter Piece,” is said to have been written to beguile his solitude, while passing a winter in a wild romantic district of the country, and to have been finished about the same time with Thomson's celebrated poem on the same subject. The good-natured bard, having somehow heard of Armstrong's production, procured a reading of it through a mutual acquaintance, and showed it to his friends Mallet, Hill, and Dr Young. The first of these admired it so much as to send a message to Edinburgh, where Armstrong then resided, requesting his leave to publish it. This request the author eagerly complied with, but Mallet, with his usual levity and faithlessness, changed his mind, and the piece did not see the light till the publication in 1795 of Anderson's Poets.
It is certainly, as the production of a boy, full of promise, and shows a very premature command of words and images. It may be called a complete collection of all Shakespeare's faults of style, and forms a pendant to the once famous “ Beauties of Shakespeare," of which Sheridan remarked, “ This is all very well, but where, pray, are the other seven volumes?” Here and there you find touches of poetry, as in the opening lines:
“Now Summer with her wanton court is gone
“ The floating wilderness (the ocean]
The high-hung pole surveys his dancing locks"! This is Armstrong's ocean; listen to his picture of the winds, and exclaim
“ Ye critics say,
It is the following:
“All the rash young bullies of the air Mount their quick slender penetrating wings,
Whipping the frost-burnt villagers to the bones” ! In his fragment entitled “ The Storm," he waxes still more outrageous :
“ The sun went down in wrath,
“ The ships that lay,
Upon th' enragèd deep, kicking each other”! These fragments of Armstrong's fail, we think, not so much for want of power, as of proper plan. They are neither altogether plagiarisms, nor altogether imitations, nor altogether parodies, but awkward medleys of the whole three. Here and there he borrows Shakespeare's expressions, tearing them from the context, and turning them from sense into nonsense. In another place, as we have hinted, he imitates his faults, and seems to cry with Pope,
All that disgrace my betters met in me.” And in a third, he tries to caricature his original, but shrinks back in timidity, or weakness, and makes himself, instead of Shakespeare, ridiculous.
Inferior even to these juvenilities are his verses entitled “Benevolence," "A Day," &c., which scarcely deserve criticism. His “Forced Marriage” is commendable for the clearness of its diction, and has unquestionably the effect of keeping up the interest; but its incidents are improbable, its characters insipid, the closing mad-scene, notwithstanding striking touches, is overdone; and, contrary to poetical justice, the villain of the piece escapes almost scot-free, while the hero and heroine miserably perish. The advertisement to this unsuccessful play is worthy of preservation, as a specimen of its author's temper :—“The following play might have appeared upon the stage many years ago, if the author
could have dangled after managers, or have used the access he had been offered to the prostituted patronage of two or three great men, to whose taste he did not choose to appeal; or, after all, if any but the two female characters could have been properly represented at the time when the piece was finished.”
“ The Art of Preserving Health” is the great solid pillar on which our poet's reputation must rest. It stands high among didactic poems; and, more than many writers of such productions, Armstrong seems to have understood their true differential quality. The object of a didactic poet should not be to exhaust his subject, not to go into its minutiæ, not to lecture on it, or, properly speaking, to teach it at all; but to shew the poetry that is in it, and to surround its edges with a circle of beauty.* Who now reads any of our celebrated poems of this class for the sake of being instructed? Who reads Lucretius on account of his Atheistic philosophy, and not for his broad and glowing pictures of nature? Who (save Triptolemus Yellowley !) has ever taken the Georgics as a text-book for modern husbandry? Who now cares for Akenside as a philosopher, however much he may admire him as a poet? Who does not positively despise the morality and religion, while admitting the brilliance, of the “Essay on Man"? And who, as we notice in another part of this volume, reads the “Fleece" for its wool-combing details, instead of its many poetic beauties? And so, still more, it is with Armstrong's poem; who knows, too, that this is to be the case with his readers, and, therefore, hurries over in general the technicalities of his theme, and diversifies it by numerous and eloquent digressions. His book is no "Buchan's Domestic Medicine" done into blank verse. His medical precepts, indeed, seem in the main just; but it is not these that rivet your attention: it is his address to the dear stream of his boyhood—it is the description of the sleeper lulled to repose,
“ Beyond the luxury of vulgar sleep,”
* After this notice of Armstrong was written, De Quincey's new volume, "Leaders of Literature,” was published—a singular coincidence with and expansion of the above views of didactic poetry.
by the midnight blasts—it is his powerful picture of “The Nightmare,” in the third book-it is his graphic and awful photograph of “The Sweating Sickness," a passage which ranks with the descriptions of “ The Plague” in Thucydides, Boccaccio, and Defoe--and above all, it is the noble close of Book II., beginning with
“What does not fade? The tower that long had stood:” it is these that make “The Art of Preserving Health " immortal. We well remember to have heard Thomas Campbell reading this last passage in the Common Hall of Glasgow College with great enthusiasm, as he proposed it to the students as the subject of a prize translation into Latin verse. Scarcely inferior is the “ Address to the Sun,” in the end of Book I., closing with the magnificently strong and simple lines :
“We court thy beams, great majesty of day!
First-born of heaven, and only less than God.” This poem, like every other, has its faults- being here a little pedantic, and there verging on, although not over, the brink of the luscious. Still, taking it as a
Still, taking it as a whole, it is, next to “ The Seasons” and “ The Pleasures of Hope,” the finest didactic
that has issued from the Scottish genius.
Note.—Since writing the first part of this memoir, we have met with an intelligent gentleman, originally from Liddesdale, who gave us a few little particulars, which we may now add. Castleton is the old name of the district of Liddesdale, as well as of a parish. Armstrong's brother, who, as we surmised, had succeeded his father as parish clergyman, was a flaming Anti-Jacobite; so much so, that, when in 1745 Lord Perth was in the neighbourhood with his rebels, he sent a party to arrest him: he fled to Northumberland. On the Sabbath after the battle of Culloden, when the news reached Armstrong, who had returned to his parish, he gave out as his morning psalm the first verses of the seventyninth psalm, including the lines :
“ Their blood about Jerusalem
Like water they have shed;
When they were slain and dead." This might almost have been interpreted into sympathy with the victims of Cumberland ; but it is the constant tradition of the parish, that he thus communicated to his hearers the intelligence he had first received.