Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Edmund Gosse
Izaak Walton (15931683)
[Izaak Walton was born at Stafford in August 1593. He came early up to London, and took a shop in Cornhill. In 161718 he was made one of the Ironmongers Company. In 1624 we find him a linen-draper in Fleet Street, near Chancery Lane, and in 1630 he bought a house in the latter thoroughfare. He possessed many noble and clerical friends, whose acquaintance he sedulously cultivated. To the LXXX. Sermons of Dr. Donne he prefixed in 1640 his Life of that worthy. His Life of Sir Henry Wotton appeared in the same year. During the Civil War he retired to Stafford. His Complete Angler made its first appearance in 1653. He published the Life of Hooker in 1662; the Life of George Herbert in 1670 in a first complete edition of the four Lives; the Life of Sanderson followed in 1678; and, possibly, a work called Love and Truth in 1680. He spent the close of his career in the house of his son-in-law, Prebendary Hawkins, in Winchester, where he died in his ninety-first year on the 15th day of December 1683, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.]
IZAAK WALTON closes his most celebrated work with the words, Study to be quiet. This is the fit colophon to his literary achievement. His work as an author and as a man is summed up in the phrase. Born to stirring times, it was his fortune to live into times that were more than stirringtimes that were turbulent, resonant, vociferous. He loved peaceful chatting with gracious elderly persons about pastoral and meditative themes. He liked to walk by still waters, through quiet, dreamy meadows. But it was his fate to find the civic stillness which he delighted in broken up by arms and onsets, and to see the sword of Civil War vambrashed from one end of England to the other. These conditions did not change the current of his style; they only forced it to dig a deeper channel, and so helped to develop that delicate and pensive product which is the prose of Izaak Walton.
It would have greatly surprised and scandalised the author of the Complete Angler to have been told that in two centuries time everybody would still be reading him, when only scholars continued to turn the pages of his magnificent friend, Dr. Donne. How clear and strong, in spite of its modesty, was the individuality of Walton is shown by the fact that his unbounded admiration of Donne as a preacher and a theological essayist has in no way affected his own manner of writing. After the brutality of so much of Elizabethan prose, especially of the lighter sort, the note of most sweet amenity comes to us refreshingly in Walton. But it does not appear that it was audible to his own contemporaries. He was hardly considered until the eighteenth century as a writer at all, but only as the purveyor of certain interesting and accurate professional observations. In his youth Greene and Nash had been read, and there still remained a tradition that a certain violence was requisite to garnish prose of the entertaining variety. Perhaps the very qualities which we delight in in Waltonthe extraordinary simplicity and lucidityseemed undignified to the stately taste of the seventeenth century.
The prose of Walton is very original in character. In his use of the dialogue form he may have owed something to the graceful pastoral pamphlets of Nicholas Breton. Perhaps he had admired the essays of the unfortunate Sir Thomas Overbury. In all essential respects, however, his pleasant amalgam of science and poetry, of learning and experience, appears to be an invention of his own. His discourse seems to be music, and charms us to an attention. The curious disease of Euphuism is seen to be quite cured by the time we reach Walton; not a trace of it is left in him, though it was to be met with long afterwards in writers of far greater pretension. His vocabulary is very modern. Sometimes the easy nature of the style betrays it into incorrectness, but even this is modern. When Walton is roused by some exciting topic, whether it be the lost credit of the poor despised chubb, or the desirability of drinking a civil cup to all otter-hunters, he is often startlingly felicitous. We feel inclined to say to him, as Venator did to Piscator, Ay, marry, sir! now you talk like an artist.
The famous milkmaid passage, which we quote among our selections, is perhaps the most admirable which Walton has left us. It is introduced abruptly, yet not without art; it is evident that the gentle author perceived the patch to be a purple one. All the little side-pictures which are introduced in this portion of the Complete Angler are wonderfully graphic. The otter-hunt is as picturesque as any of our modern naturalists could make it. Yet perhaps the best example of sustained felicity in Walton is the long Lucianic dispute between Piscator, Venator, and Auceps, each extolling his trade. There is something Greek in the simplicity and extreme naturalness of this triologue, in which air, earth, and water seem contending in the gallant persons of the Falconer, the Fox-Hunter, and the Fisherman. It seems a pity that Walton wrote so little in this broad and philosophic manner, celebrating the arts of active life and the ideals of the sportsman with blossoming hawthorn for a background, and the lark and throstle for an orchestra.
A certain happy strain in English prose may be said to start with Izaak Walton. Of the same stock have followed Sterne and Lamb and Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson. These are the delicate moralists that make a flute of our language, and pipe to us in a mode that is free and pleasant and civilly merry so artlessly that we are in danger of forgetting that it is the very consummation of art. The humour of Walton is charming. We can imagine Charles Lamb gravely inquiring, How could Cleopatra have feasted Mark Antony with eight wild boars roasted whole at one supper if the earth had not been a bountiful mother? No one before him had just this turn of phrase, this playful archness, and we conceive his fun to have trotted about quite unnoticed between the legs of the elephantine Jacobean facetiousness. It is to be noted too, as a point which links him more with the later humourists of our country, that his sentences are often admirably terse, and that he was disengaged from those coils of verbiage in which his contemporaries writhed like Laocoons.
As a biographer, again, Walton was an innovator. The five short lives which he published, though pale by the side of such work in biography as the end of the eighteenth century introduced, are yet notable as among the earliest which aim at giving us a vivid portrait of the man, instead of a discreet and conventional testimonial. It is to Walton, too, that we owe the idea of illustrating and developing biography by means of correspondence. Without doubt his incorrigible optimism entered into his study of the character of his friends, and it is no part of his inexperience as a portrait-painter that he mixes his colours with so much rose-water. He saw his distinguished acquaintances in that light; he saw them pure, radiant, and stately beyond a mortal guise, and he could not be true to himself unless he gave them the superhuman graces at which we may now smile a little. We sometimes feel that the stiffness of the biographical portrait is irksome to him. But here, as elsewhere, the artist is true to himself. Between the production of his Life of Donne and his Life of Sanderson nearly forty years elapsed, and prose style had in the meantime undergone extraordinary changes. But Walton is unchanged, the same graceful loquacity, the same limpid and serious sweetness, the same distinguished presentation of experience, mark the first biography and the latest. He is not seen quite so often at his best in the Lives as in the Complete Angler, where he may weave into his composition as many verses and as much music, as many flowers and as much fancy, as his heart desires.