- English Bards and Scotch Physicians: John Armstrong’s Debt to Paradise Lost and the Dynamics of Literary Reception
John Armstrong’s didactic poem The Art of Preserving Health (1744), long neglected by scholars and general readers alike, has recently been excerpted in a new anthology from Vintage Books entitled Very Bad Poetry (Petras and Petras 3–4). This collection, which describes itself on its back cover as “a compendium of the worst verse ever written in English,” focuses overmuch upon the moral and sentimental verse of the nineteenth century, and to this extent it is probably misleading as literary history. However, it undeniably achieves its main goal of eliciting laughter, and it was assembled with the aid of several major contemporary poets (W. D. Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnell, etc.) who have made it their business to recognize and collect bad verse. Without doubt, this anthology will bring Armstrong’s work to a broader public than it has enjoyed in two centuries; to do less would be nearly impossible. In this respect, the collection in question comprises a small but nonetheless undeniable act of inverse canon-formation—an effort to identify and celebrate the worst that has been thought and said in Anglo-American literature—and thus it provides the immediate occasion for the present essay.
Armstrong himself (1709–79), a Scottish physi cian who practiced in London and cultivated the acquaintance of such figures as Thomson, Smollett, and Fanny Burney, might well be surprised by the depths to which his literary reputation has sunk in the past two hundred years. While seeking to establish a medical practice in London, he achieved early notice by publishing an erotic poem entitled The Oeconomy of Love (1736), and among his other works in verse, he also collaborated with Thomson on certain stanzas of the latter poet’s Castle of Indolence. As Armstrong’s masterpiece, The Art of Preserving Health enjoyed “much contemporary fame” (Knapp 1024), went through numerous editions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and was even praised as “the best didactic poem, without dispute, in our language” (Monboddo 3: 166). But more recently, even Armstrong’s sympathetic readers have greeted his work with deprecation, discerning “complaint, melancholy, fear, frustration, and maladjustment” in it (Knapp 1053), and describing the Art of Preserving Health as “written in a blank verse that is overcrowded, not very fluent, . . . full of strange lapses [and] grotesque mistakes of diction” (Williams 21). Typically, scholars mention Armstrong’s particular literary indebtedness to Shakespeare and Spenser (Knapp 1020, 1057; Williams 17); however, at least one critic has noted the pervasive influence of Milton upon The Art of Preserving Health, claiming that the poem “reads to-day . . . much like a burlesque of Paradise Lost” (Havens 364). One aim of the present essay is to examine Armstrong’s misappropriation of Milton, as it operates on the levels both of diction and of narrative, in some detail. In the process, I will also argue that The Art of Preserving Health comprises a valuable document in the history of Milton’s eighteenth-century critical reception, for the Miltonism of Armstrong’s poem is largely responsible for the features that mark it, by twentieth-century standards, as inferior work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has ever traced the precise extent of Armstrong’s debt to Milton. However, not only is it true that The Art of Preserving Health reads like an unconscious parody of Paradise Lost; the deeply Miltonic nature of Armstrong’s poem also comprises its single most risible attribute. On the broad structural level, Armstrong’s Miltonism op-erates through a consistent diminution of theme and subject matter, and this diminution produces an undeniably comic effect when coupled with Arm-strong’s heavy-handed use of Miltonic diction and prosodic techniques. For an initial case in point, consider the multiple invocations of Paradise Lost, which famously perform the simultaneous and conflicting tasks of adhering to epic conventions: asserting the priority of Christian over pagan inspiration; mediating between the contexts of biblical history, authorial biography, and readerly experience; and unfixing traditional notions of [End Page 98] narrative time and space. Armstrong employs invo-cational language and self-dramatizing references to his...