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by Bamber Gascoigne

Izaak Walton (1593-1683)


Izaak Walton was an English biographer, best known for The Compleat Angler (1653), a classic guide to the joys of fishing. One of the most reproduced books in the English language, it combines practical information about angling with folklore. The story of three friends, traveling through the English countryside, is enlivened by occasional songs, ballads, quotations from several writers, and glimpses of an idyllic and now lost rural life.

"Indeed, my good scholar, we may say of angling, as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did"; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling." (from The Compleat Angler, 1653-1655)

Izaak Walton was born in the town of Stafford in the English Wesr Midlands. His father, Gervase Walton, who was an innkeeper, died before Izaak was three. His mother, Anne, then married another innkeeper. Walton had probably some schooling in Stafford, but he moved to London where he lived wirth his sister Anne. He was apprenticed to a cloth merchant, Thomas Grinsell, the husband of his sister. In the 1610s he was a proprietor of an ironmonger's shop. His shop was in Fleet Street and his house in Chancery Lane.

Walton became in 1618 a freeman of the Ironmonger's Company, eventually making himself prosperous through his own drapery business. Saying goodbye to his bachelor years in 1626, Walton married Rachel Floud; they had seven children who all died young. Rachel was a relative of Archbishop Cranmer and Walton started to move in clerical circles. About the time when Rachel died, in 1640, Walton left London. His second marriage was with Anne Ken in 1646; two of their children survived. Anne died in 1662.

Despite his modest education, Walton read widely, and associated with writers and scholars. Until 1643 he lived in the parish of St. Dunstan, where John Donne was a vicar, and the two become so friends that he attended the poet at his deathbed in 1631. When Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) died – he was a poet and Provost of Eton – Walton continued Wotton's biography of Donne. It appeared as a preface to a volume of Donne's sermons, enlarged later, and was published separately in 1658. Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel, written originally in 1624, was published later with Walton's The Life and Death of Dr Donne, written in 1640. Walton also wrote other biographical works about such persons as the poet and Walton's fishing companion George Herbert, Robert Sanderson, bishop of Lincoln, Henry Wotton, and theologian Richard Hooker. Samuel Johnson regarded Walton's Lives as one of his favorite books.

"I have laid aside business, and gone afishing." (from The Compleat Angler)

Walton left London for Staffordshire during the Civil War. He was a staunch royalist and did not feel safe under the reign of Cromwell. After the battle of Worcester in 1651 he is mentioned among the supporters of Charles II. He seems to have retired from business about 1644. After the Restoration (1660) and the death of his second wife in 1662, Walton lived at Farnham Castle as permanent guest of George Morley, the bishop of Winchester. Walton died in Winchester on December 15, 1683, in the house of Dr William Hawkins. His cottage Walton left in his will to the "towne or corporation of Stafford, in which I was borne, for the good and benefit of some of the said towne". Walton was buried in the Cathedral. There is a glass painting, which portrays him reading a book and fishing.

The Compleat Angler was a combination of manual and meditation in the Stoic style of Marcus Aurelius. The work became one of the most reprinted books in the history of British letters. The story is of three sportsmen: a fisherman (Piscator, who is Walton himself), a huntsman (Venator), and a fowler (Auceps). They travel along the river Lea on the first day in May and discuss the relative merits of their favorite pastimes. Auceps tells how "the very birds of the air, those that be not Hawks, are both so many and so useful and pleasant to mankind, that I must not let them pass without some observations. They both feed and refresh him; feed him with their choice bodies, and refresh him with their heavenly voices." In his own turn Venator defends hunting: "Hunting trains up the younger nobility to the use of manly exercises in their riper age. What more manly exercise than hunting the Wild Boar, the Stag, the Buck, the Fox, or the Hare? How doth it preserve health, and increase strength and activity!" And finally Piscator reminds his friends: "I might tell you that Almighty God is said to have spoken to a fish, but never to a beast; that he hath made a whale a ship, to carry and set his prophet, Jonah, safe on the appointed shore."

Walton drew his work on Nicholas Breton's (c. 1545-1626) fishing idyll Wits Trenchmour (1597). The second edition was largely rewritten and in the fifth edition Walton wrote about fly fishing on the river Dove. It was a subject the author himself knew little about and he turned to Thomas Barker for the fly fishing section. Barker, had produced a treatise, Barker's Delight: or, The Art of Angling, in 1657. The last edition, published in 1676, included additional material by Charles Cotton (Instructions how to Angle for a Trout or Grayling in a Clear Stream) and Colonel Robert Venables's The Experienced Angler, or Angling Improved. Walton called this work The Universal Angler. He had taught Cotton but never met Venables.

Lord Byron, a vegetarian, was so disgusted by Walton's treatment of animals, that he wrote in Don Juan (Canto XIII): "And angling, too, that solitary vice, / Whatever Izaak Walton sings or says: / The quaint, old, cruel coxcomb, in his gullet / Should have a hook, and a small trout to pull it." John Buchan, who edited Methuen's edition of The Compleat Angler from 1901, wrote that the work "remains a model of ease and charm. At its worst it is monotonous, the sentence falling away into shapelessness and a flat and ugly close." (The Compleat Angler: Or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation,  Introduction and Notes by John Buchan, 1901, p. xxxi)

For further reading: The Making of Waalton's Lives by D. Novarr (1958); Biography in the Hands of Walton, Johnson and Boswell by J.E. Butt (1966); The Art of the Compleat Angler by J.R. Cooper (1968); Lives of English Laymen by William H. Teale (1977); Izaak Walton to Henry Fielding: The Critical Perspective, ed. by Harold Bloom (1987); Izaak Walton by P.G. Stanwood (1998); The Complete Angler: A Connecticut Yankee Follows in the Footsteps of Walton by James Prosek (1999); 'Walton, Izaak,' in Encyclopedia of British Writers: 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries, edited by Alan Hager (2005); 'Introduction' by Marjorie Swann, in The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton & Charles Cotton (2014) - "Father Isaac,--When I would be quiet and go angling it is my custom to carry in my wallet thy pretty book, "The Compleat Angler." Here, methinks, if I find not trout I shall find content, and good company, and sweet songs, fair milkmaids, and country mirth. For you are to know that trout be now scarce and whereas he was ever a fearful fish, he hath of late become so wary that none but the cunningest anglers may be even with him. " ('To Master Isaak Walton,' in Letters To Dead Authors by Andrew Lang, 1886, p, 86)
Selected works:
  • The Life and Death of Dr. Donne, 1640 (revised and enlarged in 1658)
  • The Life of Sir Henry Wotton, 1651
  • The Compleat Angler; or The Contemplative Mans̓ Recreation, 1653 (ed. by J. Majors, 1824; Andrew Lang, 1896)
    - Oivallinen onkimies (suom. Kai Kaila, 1974)
  • The Life of Mr. Richard Hooker, 1665
  • The Life of Mr George Herbert, 1670
  • The Life Of Dr. Sanderson, Late Bishop of Lincoln, 1678
  • Love and Truth: In Two ... Letters Concerning the Distempers of the Present Times, Written from a Quiet and Conformable Citizen of London (R. W.) to Two Busie and Factious Shop-Keepers of Coventry, 1680 (attributed to Izaak Walton)
  • Waltoniana: Inedited Remains in Verse and Prose of Izaak Walton, 1878 (notes and preface by Richard Herne Shepherd)
  • Walton's Lives, 1903 (edited by G. Sampson)
  • The Compleat Walton, 1929 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes; illustrations by Thomas Poulton and Charles Sigrist)
  • Izaak Walton: Selected Writings, 1997 (edited with an introduction by Jessica Martin)
  • The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation, 2003 (introduction by Andrew Lang)
  • The Compleat Angler, 2008 (edited with notes by John Buxton; with an introduction by John Buchan)
  • The Compleat Angler, 2014 (edited with an introduction and notes by Marjorie Swann)
  • Complete Works of Izaak Walton, 2018 (Delphi Classics)

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