Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Antiquaries > The Compleat Angler
  Izaak Walton Sir Thomas Urquhart  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

X. Antiquaries.

§ 13. The Compleat Angler.


It has generally been conceded that the absence of quantity is more than made up by the presence of quality, but the quality of that quality itself has been made the subject of dispute, sometimes unnecessarily (and, in reference to Walton, most inappropriately) ill-tempered. In The Compleat Angler, it has been pronounced by some to be the result of consummate literary art; while, to others, it seems to be—there almost exclusively, and, in the Lives, to no small extent—purely natural and unpremeditated, the spontaneous utterance of a “happy old man” (as Flatman, with complete felicity, if not complete originality, called him), who has lived with men of letters, and is familiar with letters themselves, but who no more thinks of picking words and turning phrases than a nurse does in telling tales to a child. But this dispute could hardly be settled without settling what “literary art” is, and that would be a long process. Nor is the settlement of the actual quarrel a matter of absorbing interest. The fact remains that the singular and golden simplicity of Walton’s style—in The Compleat Angler more especially but, except when the occasion seems to insist on more ceremony, also in the Lives—is matter of common ground and of no dispute whatever. Walton was a man of no inconsiderable reading; and he could not have been a man of his time if he had been shy of showing it, however completely his character might lack pretension. But not Bunyan himself can use a plainer and purer vernacular than Walton when he chooses, as he generally does choose. On the much rarer occasions when he “talks book” a little (as in the passage about the “silver stream gliding towards the tempestuous sea,” which preludes the scene with Maudlin and “Come live with me and be my love”), he may, possibly, be aiming higher, but he goes much wider of his mark.   34
  If this naturalness of style be duly considered, it will, perhaps, be found to diminish, if not to remove altogether, any surprise that might otherwise be felt at the production of so little work in so long a life; at the remarkable excellence of the product; and at its curious variety. Personal interest, and nothing else, appears to have been the sole starting influence, so far as matter goes, in every case, even in that of the life of Hooker;  9  and personal quality, and nothing else, to have been the fashioner of the style. Anything—country, scenery, old-fashioned manners, piety, the strange complexity of Donne, the simplicity (patient in life, massive and independent in letters) of Hooker, the various characteristics of Wotton and Herbert and Sanderson, the pastoral-romantic fairy-land of Chalkhill—all these things, in one way or another, were brought directly home to him, and he made them at home without parade, and, with perfect homeliness and ease, as Philemon and Baucis did the gods who visited them, to speak in the manner of his own time.   35
  The result was what ease generally brings with it—charm. There have been, from his own time downwards, fishermen who were contemptuous of his fishing; and recent biographers have been contemptuous of anyone who should be content with the facts of his biographies. The competent orbis terrarum of readers has always been careless of either contempt. In his case, as in almost all, the charm is not really to be analysed, or, rather, it is possible to distinguish the parts, but necessary to recognise that the whole is much greater than these parts put together. The angling directions might fail to interest, and the angling erudition succeed in boring; as to the subjects of the Lives, though they were all remarkable men in their different ways, only Donne can be said to have an intense interest of personality. The source of attraction is Walton, not the “chub or chavender,” or the Hertfordshire meadows and streams, or Maudlin and “red cow,” or the decent joviality of my brother Peter, or Hooker’s misfortunes in marriage, or Sir Henry Wotton’s scholarly urbanity, but these things, as Walton shows them to us, with art so unpremeditated, that, as has been said, some would deny it to be art at all, yet with the effect of consummate mimesis of presentation of nature with something of the individual presenter added. But it will hardly be denied that his grace is positively enhanced by the characteristic which he shares with the other subjects of this chapter—the quaint, and, in him, almost unexpected seasoning of learning. He has it, no doubt, least of the four; and what he has he neither obtrudes and caricatures like Urquhart, nor makes his main canvas like Browne, nor associates pell-mell with play of conceit and purpose of instruction, as does Fuller. With him, it is a sort of silver or gold lacing to the sober grey garment of his thought and diction, though it should always be remembered that grey is capable of almost more fascinating shades than any other colour, and sets off the most delicate textures admirably.   36
  To dwell at any length on the fashion in which this sober grace is brought out in The Compleat Angler would be superfluous; but a word or two may be permitted. No book so well deserves as a motto that stanza of The Palace of Art which describes the “English home,” “a haunt of ancient Peace,” with “dewy pastures, dewy trees.” There is no dulness and no stagnation; the characters walk briskly, talk vigorously and argumentatively, fish, eat, drink like men of this world, and like cheerful and active men of a world that is going pretty well after all. But there is also no worry; nothing ugly, vulgar or jarring. It is the landscape and the company of The Faerie Queene passed through a slight sieve of realism, and crimeless; only, in the distance, perhaps, an erring gentleman, who reprehensively derives his jests from Scripture or from want of decency. A land of Beulah in short—with a somewhat less disquieting atmosphere of lack of permanence, which the land of Beulah itself must have carried with it.   37

Note 9. Walton quotes from Hooker the words “as discernible as a natural from an artificial beauty.” They were not without application in his own case. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Izaak Walton Sir Thomas Urquhart  
 
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