1902 Encyclopedia > Izaak Walton

Isaak Walton
English author

IZAAK WALTON (1593-1683), author of The Compleat Angler, hooked a much bigger fish than he angled for when he offered his quaint treatise to the public. There is hardly a name in our literature, even of the first rank, whose immortality is more secure, or whose personality is the subject of a more devoted cult. Not only is he the sacer vates of a considerable sect in the religion of recrea-tion, but multitudes who have never put a worm on a hook—-even on a fly-hook—have been caught and securely held by his picture of the delights of the gentle craft and his easy leisurely transcript of his own simple, peaceable, lovable, and amusing character.
A succession of devotees have supplemented by patient inquiry what he tells us of himself. He was born at Stafford in August 1593; the register of his baptism gives his father's name as Jervis, and nothing more is known of his parentage. He settled in London as a shopkeeper, and at first had one of the small shops, seven and a half feet by five, in the upper story of Gresham's Royal Burse or Exchange in Cornhill. In 1624 he had a shop in Fleet Street opposite the Temple, and was described as a linen-draper. In 1632 he bought a lease of a house and shop in Chancery Lane, and was described as a " sempster " or milliner. His first wife, married in December 1626, was Rachel Floud, a great-great-niece of Archbishop Cranmer. She died in 1640. He married again soon after, his second wife being also of distinguished clerical connexion, Anne Ken—the pastoral "Kenna" of The Angler's Wish —sister of Thomas Ken, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells. When the civil war broke out, he retired from business. He had bought some land near his birthplace, Stafford, and he went to live there, but, according to Wood, spent most of his time " in the families of the eminent clergymen of England, of whom he was much beloved." His second wife died in 1662, and was buried in Worcester cathedral church, where there is a monument to her memory. One of his daughters married Dr Hawkins, a prebendary of Winchester, in whose house he died in December 1683, at the age of ninety. The last forty years of his long life seem to have been spent in ideal leisure and occupation, the old man travelling here and there, visiting his "eminent clergymen" and other brethren of the angle, compiling the biographies of con-genial spirits, and collecting here a little and there a little for the enlargement of his famous treatise.
The first edition of The Compleat Angler was published in 1653, but the peaceful angler continued to add to its completeness in his leisurely way for a quarter of a century. There was a second edition in 1656, a third in 1661 (identical with that of 1664), a fourth in 1668, and a fifth in 1676. In this last edition the thirteen chapters of the original have grown to twenty-one, and a second part was added by his loving friend and brother angler Charles Cotton, who took up "Venator" where Walton had left him and completed his instruction in fly-fishing and the making of flies.
Walton did not profess to be an expert with the fly; the fly-fishing in his first edition was contributed by Mr Thomas Barker, a retired cook and humorist, who produced a treatise of his own in 1659; but in the use of the live worm, the grasshopper, and the frog " Piscator " himself could speak as a master. The famous passage about the frog—often misquoted about the worm— " use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer"—appears in the original edition. The additions made as the work grew were not merely to the didactic part; happy quotations, new turns of phrase, songs, poems, and anecdotes were introduced as if the leisurely author, who wrote it as a recreation, had kept it constantly in his mind and talked it over point by point with his numerous brethren. There were originally only two interlocutors in the opening scene, " Pisca-tor" and "Viator"; but in the second edition, as if in answer to an objection that "Piscator" had it too much in his own way in praise of angling, he introduced the falconer, " Auceps," changed "Viator" into "Venator," and made the new companions each dilate on the joys of his favourite sport.
Although The Compleat Angler was not Walton's first literary work, his leisurely labours as a biographer seem to have grown out of his devotion to angling. It was probably as an angler that he made the acquaintance of Sir Henry Wotton, but it is clear that Walton, whatever his education and breeding may have been, must have had more than a love of fishing and a humorous temper to recommend him to the friendship of the accomplished ambas-sador. At any rate, Wotton, who had intended to write the life of John Donne, left the task to Walton, who had lamented his pastor's death in an Elegy in 1633, and now completed and pub-lished the life, much to the satisfaction of the most learned critics, in 1640. Sir Henry Wotton dying in 1639, Walton undertook his life also; it was finished in 1642, and published in 1651. His life of Hooker was published in 1662, George Herbert in 1670, and Bishop Sanderson in 1678. All these subjects were endeared to the biographer by a certain gentleness of disposition and cheerful piety; three of them at least, Donne, Wotton, and Herbert, were anglers. Their lives were evidently written with loving pains, in the same leisurely fashion as his Angler, and like it are of value less as exact knowledge than as harmonious and complete pictures of character. Walton also rendered affectionate service to the memory of his friends Sir John Skeffington and John Chalkhill, editing with prefatory notices Skeffington's Hero of Lorenzo in 1652, and Chalkhill's Thcalma and Clearchns a few months before bis own death in 1683. Two political letters, published in 1680, under the title Love and Truth, though conciliatory enough in temper to be Walton's, are ascribed to him on somewhat doubtful authority (see Zouch's Lives, vol. ii. p. 387, ed. 1817).
There are biographies of Walton himself by Sir John Hawkins (prefixed to an
edition of the Angler, 1760), Dr Zouch (appended to an edition of the Lives, 1796),
and Sir Harris Nicolas (prefixed to an edition of the Angler, 1836). There are
notices also, with additional scraps of fact, annexed to two great American
editions, Bethune's (1847, particularly splendid) and Dowling's (1857). A fac-
simile of the original edition of the Angler was issued by Bagster in 1810, another
by Elliot Stock in 1876. (W. M.)

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