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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)

By Izaak Walton (1593–1683)

OF the life of Master Izaak Walton, angler, author, and linen-draper, but little is known, and all to his credit. In a life so sparingly diversified with events, the biographer is divided in his mind between regret that the material for narration is so small, and gratitude that the picture of a good man’s character and peaceful occupation stands out so clear and untroubled.

Izaak Walton was born at the town of Stafford, in the English county of the same name, in August 1593. Of his education he speaks with becoming modesty; and it is probable that it was slight, for at the age of nineteen years he was engaged in retail trade in London. His first shop was in the Royal Burse, Cornhill, and was only “seven and a half feet long by five feet wide.” But he seems to have done a good business at this humble stand; for in 1624 he had a larger shop in Fleet Street, and in 1632 he bought a lease of a house and shop in Chancery Lane, where his occupation is described as that of a “sempster” or “milliner.”

It is certain that he did not live for his trade, though he lived by it; for as early as 1619 we find a book of verse, ‘The Love of Amos and Laura,’ dedicated to him as a person of acknowledged taste and skill in letters. The friendships which he formed with Dr. John Donne the metaphysical preacher and poet, with Sir Henry Wotton the witty and honest ambassador, with the learned John Hales of Eton College, and with many other persons of like ability and distinction, prove him to have been a man of singular intelligence, amiable character, and engaging conversation. In some of these friendships, no doubt, the love of angling—to which recreation he was attached by a pure and temperate and enduring passion—was either the occasion of intimacy or the promoter of it. For it has often been observed that this gentle sport inclines the hearts of those that practice it to friendliness; and there are no closer or more lasting companionships than such as are formed beside flowing streams by men who “study to be quiet and go a-fishing.” And this Walton did, as we know from his own testimony. He turned from the hooks and eyes of his shop to cast the hook for the nimble trout or the sluggish chub, in the waters of the Lea, or of the New River, with such cheerful comrades as honest Nat. and R. Roe; “but they are gone,” he adds, “and with them most of my pleasant hours, even as a shadow that passeth away and returns not.”

In 1626 he married Rachel Floud, a great-great-niece of Archbishop Cranmer. She died in 1640, leaving a child who survived her but two years.

In 1643, about the beginning of the Civil War,—which he deplored and reprobated with as much bitterness as was possible to a man of his gentle disposition,—he retired from business with a modest fortune, and purchased a small estate near his native town, in the heart of rural England and in the neighborhood of good fishing. Here he lived in peace and quietness, passing much of his time as a welcome visitor in the families of eminent clergymen; “of whom,” says the gossipy old chronicler Anthony Wood, “he was much beloved.”

About 1646 he married again; the bride being a lady of discreet age,—not less than thirty-five years,—and a stepsister of Thomas Ken, who afterwards became the beloved Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the honored author of the ‘Evening Hymn,’ with many other pieces of sacred poetry. This is the lady who is spoken of so pleasantly as “Kenna” in ‘The Angler’s Wish,’ Walton’s best poem. She died in 1662, leaving two children: a son, Izaak Walton Jr., who lived a useful, tranquil life and died unmarried; and a daughter who became the wife of the Rev. Dr. William Hawkins, a prebendary in the Church of Winchester, in whose house Walton died.

With such close and constant associations among the clergy, it was but natural that Walton’s first essay in literature should have an ecclesiastical flavor. It was ‘The Life of Dr. John Donne,’ prefixed to the sermons of that noted divine and difficult poet,—which were published in 1640, while Walton was still keeping shop in London. The brief biography was a very remarkable piece of work for an untried author; and gave evidence of a hand that, however it may have acquired its skill, was able to modulate the harmonies of English prose, with a rare and gentle charm, to a familiar tune,—the praise of piety and benevolence and humbleness,—and yet with such fresh and simple turns of humor and tenderness as delight the heart while they satisfy the judgment.

Walton speaks, in the preface to this ‘Life,’ of his “artless pencil.” But in truth it was the ars celare artem that belonged to him. His writing shows that final and admirable simplicity which is always the result of patient toil and the delicate, loving choice of words. When, for example, he speaks of Master Donne as proceeding in a certain search “with all moderate haste,” or of his behavior “which, when it would entice, had a strange kind of elegant irresistible art”; or when he says of his relation to the Society of Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn, that it was “a love-strife of desert and liberality”; or when he describes “that last hour of his last day, as his body melted away and vapored into spirit,”—he writes as one who understands and respects the mysteries of language and the value of exquisite expression.

The series of biographies (all too few) in which he embalmed the good memories of Sir Henry Wotton (1651), the Judicious Mr. Richard Hooker (1662), the Sacred Poet George Herbert (1670), and the Devout Bishop Sanderson (1678), are adorned with some of the most quaintly charming passages of prose to be found in English literature; and illuminated by a spirit of sincere charity and pious affection (except towards the Scotch and the Commonwealth-men), which causes them to shine with a mild and steady luster, like lamps hung by grateful hands before the shrines of friendly and familiar saints. Walton’s ‘Lives,’ if he had written nothing else, would give him a fair title to a place in a library of the world’s best literature.

But his chief claim upon immortality, in the popular estimation, rests on a work of another character. In ‘The Complete Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation,’ Walton doubtless aimed at nothing more than a small book of instruction in the secrets of his beloved art; with which he mixed, as he says, “in several places, not any scurrility, but some innocent harmless mirth, of which if thou be a severe, sour-complexioned man, then I here disallow thee to be a competent judge; for divines say, there are offenses given, and offenses not given but taken.” But in thus making a recreation of his recreation, a fortunate fisherman’s luck befell him. Like a man who in casting the fly for trout hooks a lordly salmon (and this happy accident occurred to a friend of mine only the other day, but sadly enough the salmon was not landed),—even so, Walton, in seeking to win the approbation and gratitude of a little peaceable brotherhood of anglers in the troubled age of Oliver Cromwell, caught and kept the thankful admiration and praise of many generations of readers. I think it likely that no one could be more surprised at this unlooked-for but well-deserved result than himself; or more thankful for the success which gave to his favorite sport the singular honor of having inspired a classic in literature.

‘The Complete Angler’ must have been begun not long after his retirement from business, for it was ready to be printed in 1650. But the first edition did not appear until 1653. The second followed in 1655; the third in 1661; the fourth in 1668; and the fifth, which was the last printed during the author’s lifetime, in 1676. In all of these new editions, except the third, there were many alterations and enlargements; for Walton labored assiduously to perfect what he had written, and the changes, even the slightest, display the care of a scrupulous and affectionate workman in words. In the fifth edition a Second Part was added, consisting of ‘Instructions How to Angle for a Trout or Grayling in a Clear Stream.’ This was written by Charles Cotton, Esquire, of Beresford Hall, in imitation of his master’s manner, but at a considerable distance. Since that time more than a hundred editions of the book have been published, of all shapes and sizes, from the tiny 48mo of Pickering to the imperial octavo of Sir Harris Nicolas; so that a man can choose whether he will read Old Izaak in large print from a broad-margined page on a library table, or carry him in his pocket as Washington Irving did, and read him under a beech-tree, in a green meadow just by a spring of pure sweet water.

The value of ‘The Complete Angler’ at this day is not to be looked for in its completeness. In its time, no doubt, it gave much new and curious instruction to the novice in the art; for Walton was unrivaled in his skill with bait, and Thomas Barker, the retired cook and active humorist who helped him in his discourse upon artificial flies, was an adept in that kind of angling. But most of these instructions, and likewise the scientific dissertations upon fish and fish-ponds, have long since gone out of date; and the book now belongs to the literature of power rather than of knowledge. Its unfailing charm lies in its descriptions of the country and of country life; in its quaint pastoral scenes, like the episode of the milkmaid, and the convocation of gipsies; and in its constant, happy exhortations to contentment, humility, and a virtuous, placid temper.

The form of the book is a dialogue, in which at first the respective merits of hunting, hawking, and angling are disputed; and then the discourse falls chiefly into the mouth of Piscator, who expounds the angler’s contemplative sport to Venator, who has become his willing and devoted pupil. The manner of writing is sincere, colloquial, unaffected, yet not undignified; it is full of digressions, which like the footpaths on a journey are the pleasantest parts of all; it is an easy, unconstrained, rambling manner, yet always sure-footed, as the step of one who has walked so long beside the streams that he can move forward safely without looking at the ground, while his eyes follow the water and the rising fish. In short, the book has that rare and imperishable quality called style: a quality easily recognized but hardly defined; a quality which in its essence, whatever its varying forms may be, is always neither more nor less than the result of such a loving mastery of the true proprieties of language as will permit the mind and spirit of a man to shine with lucid clearness through his words.

Thus Izaak Walton shines through ‘The Complete Angler.’ An honest, kindly man; a man satisfied with his modest place in the world, and never doubting that it was a good world, or that God made it; an amicable man, not without his prejudices and superstitions, yet well pleased that every reader should enjoy his own opinion; a musical, cheerful man, delighting in the songs of birds and making melody in his heart to God; a loyal, steadfast man, not given to changing his mind, nor his ways, nor his friends; a patient, faithful, gentle man,—that was Walton. Thus he fished tranquilly and without offense through the stormy years of the Civil War, and the Rump Parliament, and the Commonwealth, wishing that all men would beat their swords into fish-hooks and cast their leaden bullets into sinkers. Thus he died, on December 15th, 1683, being ninety years of age and in charity with all men. Few writers are more deserving of an earthly immortality, and none more certain of a heavenly one.