Adam Budd (ed.), John Armstrong’s ‘The Art of Preserving Health’

Adam Budd (ed.), John Armstrong’s ‘The Art of Preserving Health’: Eighteenth-Century Sensibility in Practice (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), xxii + 302 pp. £65.00 hb. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6306-5.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Dr Adam Budd has provided a critical edition of John Armstrong’s 1,700-line four-book poem, The Art of Preserving Health (1744), complete with marginal glosses and footnotes packed with an impressive range of references to classical sources, early modern historical background and literary analogues, and recent scholarship in fields of dazzling diversity. His preface deftly places the author and his ‘medico-georgic’ (46) work in their biographical, social, intellectual and literary contexts, while a more substantial general introduction charts Armstrong’s ‘earlier writing, medical training, and pioneering medico-poetic career’, followed by ‘a closer reading of the poem’ (3). Budd suggests some reasons for the poem’s rapid and enduring success: ‘John Armstrong’s innovative depiction of sympathy between ailing English patients and a wise Scottish physician and between a learned poet and receptive readers eventually won him a precious measure of patronage from the English medical establishment. Over the course of the next century, generations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers across Britain, Europe, and America celebrated the heightened and innovative display of emotion and physical sensibility in The Art of Preserving Health’ (4). Budd illustrates the appeal of Armstrong’s enhanced sensibility by citing an episode when James Boswell, in a fit of depression, ‘resorted to Armstrong’s poetical therapy’ (1) by recalling Armstrong’s description of melancholy’s fearsome effects. In Budd’s edition the passage reads as follows:

The prostrate soul beneath

A load of huge imagination heaves;

And all the horrors that the murderer feels

With anxious flutterings wake the guiltless breast. (IV, lines 101-104)

What nervously-inclined patient could refuse to feel confidence in a physician so intimately acquainted with panic attacks?

The critical edition is followed by ‘Contextual Documents’, mainly in extract form. ‘Poetry’ comprises Thomas Creech’s ‘The Plague of Athens, from the Latin of Lucretius’ (1682), Anne Finch’s ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ (1713), Edward Young’s ‘Night the First’ (1742), Thomas Warton’s The Pleasures of Melancholy (1747), and ‘A Hymn on Solitude’ (1748) and the preface to Winter (1726) by Armstrong’s fellow-Scot and close friend, James Thomson. A very useful selection on ‘Theory of the Georgic’, which accounts for such a large amount of eighteenth-century verse, provides Joseph Addison’s ‘Essay on the Georgics’ (1697), the preface to John Martyn’s translation of Virgil’s Georgicks (1741), and Joseph Trapp’s ‘Of Didactic or Preceptive Poetry’ (1711-9). The section on ‘Medical Documents’ levies contributions from Richard Bradley’s The Plague at Marseille Consider’d (1720), George Cheyne’s An Essay of Health and Long Life (1724), an anonymous Letter to George Cheyne (1724), John Tristram’s anonymously published The Ill State of Physick in Great Britain (1727), and the preface to Armstrong’s A Full View of All the Diseases Incident to Children (1742). Chronological tables of significant figures, events, and publications from 1659 to 1827, and of classical texts, followed by a bibliography of formidable proportions, complete a handsomely produced volume that can be recommended, as a valuable and welcome resource, to any scholar who is well versed in eighteenth-century literature in English. There is sure to be something here that chimes with existing interests and whets the appetite for further study: topics discussed include not only many aspects of the history of medicine, and especially of Edinburgh’s contribution to a new understanding of the patient’s mind and body, but sensibility, melancholy, the multifarious ramifications of the georgic, the evolution of the graveyard poem, the first stirrings of the romantic movement, gendered readership and authorship, the social context of duelling, the contribution of Scots authors to what is still so often referred to as ‘English Literature’, the use and reception of classical texts, and Robert Walpole’s fall from power due to an epidemic of yellow fever. Personally, I intend to quarry it relentlessly for background material when teaching on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the eighteenth-century roots of the Gothic; that I shall consult it on eighteenth-century theories about sexuality and reproduction goes without saying: it tops the list of books I wish had been in print while I was researching my last project in that field.

Readers not already confident in their ability to negotiate the complexity of eighteenth-century literary English should, however, take care: Budd’s treatment of texts does not always match the quality of the rest of this study. There are a few inaccuracies in transcription, probably arising from lapses in concentration when dealing with eighteenth-century printing practices. The combination of the long letter s followed by a lower case i leads to ‘fickle fabric’ being read as ‘sickle fabric’ (Armstrong, The Art of Preserving Health, I, line 43). Budd has glossed these words as ‘sickly body’. To be fair, the only difference between sickle and fickle in 1744 typography is a slightly thicker ligature between f and i, but it is not the sort of difference you would notice without looking for it. Latin also raises a few problems, as in Opiserque for Opiferque (243). Budd takes nothing for granted: with exemplary energy, he focuses a high-beam searchlight on every point that he considers in need of explanation. Unfortunately, this technique sometimes generates inaccuracies: for example, ‘The man who bade the Theban domes ascend’ (Armstrong, The Art of Preserving Health, IV, line 508) was not Pindar (n. 222), but Amphion. Referencing classical texts is generally done well, but he makes a few mistakes with the Aeneid, notably when the Sybil is quoted as saying that ‘“ascent from the underworld is easy, but returning difficult”’, and the line is assigned to Book 4 instead of Book 6 (245, n. 27). More problematic are the occasional misreadings of the texts he is editing, especially where attempts to elucidate the literal meaning of a passage have not taken full account of its context. As a result, readers who initially found a passage obscure might be misled, as in the following three examples.

The annotation of the passage below partially reverses its literal meaning. Hot air, says Armstrong,

Too fast imbibes th’attenuated lymph

Which, by the surface, from the blood exhales. ...

Spoil’d of its limpid vehicle, the blood

A mass of lees remains, a drossy tide

That slow as Lethe wanders thro’ the veins;

Unactive in the services of life,

Unfit to lead its pitchy current thro’

The secret mazy channels of the brain.

(The Art of Preserving Health, I, lines 168-69, 173-78)

Budd provides scholarly and accurate notes on eighteenth-century ideas about the functions of lymph, and on the place of Lethe in classical mythology. However, his note on line 169 also says, ‘Armstrong is warning that dry air dilutes the lymphatic fluid by thinning the blood’, yet the passage as a whole says that it forces the lymph to evaporate from the skin, which leads to thickening of the blood. Sometimes his interpretations are so strained that they almost lose touch with the subject. This happens in a passage on rural conversation:

his cordial family

With soft domestic arts the hours beguile,

And pleasing talk that starts no timorous fame,

With witless wantonness to hunt it down (III, lines 138-141)

‘Timorous fame’ is glossed as ‘frightening rumors’, and the note to ‘hunt it down’ reads ‘i.e., to work something out. The sentence might be glossed as “with modest [not boastful or accusative] talk that works out the truth” of something, facilitating companionship.’ When eighteenth-century writers discuss conversation, especially in the presence of women (suggested by ‘soft domestic arts’), they are often concerned about whether or not it is scandalous gossip. Matthew Green, in The Spleen (1737), assumes that it is, and recommends it as a cure for melancholy: topics include ‘unusual swell of waist,/In maid of honour loosely laced,/And beauty borrowing Spanish red,/And loving pair with separate bed’ (lines 188-191). Armstrong’s lines 140-41 look like a mildly hinted counterblast to Green: ‘And pleasant conversation that does not make sport of a woman’s carefully-guarded reputation for chastity, destroying it for the sake of some stupid amusement’. Finally, dangers can arise from the sheer fertility and versatility of the English language, in which individual words have so many meanings that even a mistake can make perfect sense. This happens when Budd copies the statement that an author is too tired to undertake the labour of ‘much Fileing and Finishing’ (George Cheyne, An Essay of Health and Long Life, London: George Strahan; Bath: J. Leake, 1724, p. xviii). The words emerge as ‘pitch Fileing and Finishing’, which Budd annotates as ‘the physical labor of filing and then sanding (finishing) the hardened tar (pitch) that seals the wooden hull of ships—metaphorically, laboring with words to seal an argument’ (227). The only indication of an error was the absence of a capital P on ‘pitch’.

This is not, sadly, a unique predicament. Recent technological developments have made available an unprecedented range of material, bringing many readers into contact with what I shall call ‘raw’ texts that have not been subjected to the annotations, scholarly debates, and pedagogic practices that would have made them easier to understand. Inevitably, misreadings have ensued. Texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have proved particularly awkward, if only because their language appears so similar to present-day English. Simultaneously, the proliferation of new disciplines and the vogue for interdisciplinarity have made heavy demands on the versatility of individual scholars. Budd’s book is precisely designed to address this situation, by making relatively unfamiliar texts not only accessible but comprehensible, and by bridging interdisciplinary gaps. If any moral can be gleaned from its occasional errors, it seems to be that medico-historical lions may profit from the vigilance of attendant mice, whose skills, though comparatively limited, can serve to cut them free when they are entangled in the toils of eighteenth-century poetic diction. Nevertheless, as it stands, this book brings important texts to a wider public, and makes a valuable contribution to the study of the links between medicine and sensibility in the eighteenth century.

Carolyn D. Williams, University of Reading