Izaak Walton (1593–1683) is one of the most famous of all writers on leisure and sport, an author whose tract on angling is both charming and political, and which helped to sustain the caricature of the ‘Cavalier’ for several centuries. Born in Stafford in 1593, Walton was apprenticed to an ironmonger in London and went on to open his own shop on Fleet Street. He became friendly with John Donne, who was vicar of this parish, and through Donne became involved with Ben Jonson's literary and intellectual circle. By 1640 Walton's wife Rachael and all seven of their children had died; he remarried in 1646. In 1653 he published The compleat angler or, the contemplative man's recreation. This book, immensely popular ever since its publication, has ensured that Walton is associated with a particularly English sense of the countryside. Walton was also one of the foremost practitioners of literary biography England has produced: his example was to be the model followed by many after him, including James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. After 1662, when his second wife died, Walton lived at Farnham Castle, home of George Morley, bishop of Winchester, and he died in Winchester aged 90 in 1683. His close friend Charles Cotton added a second part to the fifth edition (1676) of The compleat angler.
Walton was writing when the concept of leisure was just beginning to be given shape through the publication of books of rules, accounts of sports, and histories of games; the pastimes of the burgeoning aspirational classes were catered to by a range of texts that helped them to be better riders, dancers, archers, and card-players. Yet while his handbook of fishing is stuffed full of lore and knowledge, it also performs a more political function as an expression of a certain type of ‘natural’ English nationalism, vested in pastoral, countryside, and Georgic pursuits. The compleat angler went through multiple editions during Walton's lifetime, and he was one of the first ‘popular’ writers to gain a reputation and a following in print. The text initially takes the form of a dialogue between Piscator (Fisherman) and Viator (Traveller), and thus demonstrates its ancestry as philosophical and meditative, a humanist discourse of inquiry through discussion. The text quotes freely from Aristotle, Pliny, Lucian, Michel de Montaigne, and Francis Bacon, and also from contemporary verse by George Herbert and folk-songs. It therefore locates itself in a tradition of advice literature and philosophical inquiry, as well as being a work of natural history and proto-taxonomy.
Piscator argues that to be a gentleman is to be ‘learned and humble, valiant and inoffensive, virtuous and communicable, then by a fond ostentation of riches’, emphasizing simplicity and virtue in life. He recommends fishing because it is a quiet, contemplative existence lived by those who understand the true value of things: ‘quiet men, [who] followed peace; men that were too wise to sell their consciences to buy riches for vexation’. Piscator also highlights the ancient nature of angling, encouraging a sense of it as allowing a connection with ancestors around the world. Piscator and Viator meet a variety of figures who tell them stories or introduce them to types offish; some sing to them. Ultimately, he concludes that to be an angler is to be patient: ‘it is diligence, and observation, and practice that must do it’. In subsequent editions Walton added characters to expand his scope: changing Viator to Venator (Hunter) and introducing Auceps (Falconer).
This text has often been seen as the clearest articulation of a type of ‘Cavalier’ identity – inflected through a lens of leisured, countryside activity. Royalist writing – such as the work of Martin Lluellyn or Robert Herrick – often cleaved to models of bucolic contentment and simplicity as a means of expressing opposition to a Puritan Parliamentary enemy who revoked the 1633 Book of Sports and banned such countryside pastimes as morris-dancing, may-poles, and festivals. The text outlines a way of country living which is simple, effective, and contemplative, away from the pressures of the city. Walton has therefore been seen, with Mildmay Fane, as the writer of retirement, celebrating stoicism and a disavowal of the public fray. Walton's text seemingly suggests that the pursuit of recreation is noble and a way for the gentleman to ‘devest your self of your more serious business’. This type of disengagement from the political world has often been discussed in terms of otium, a life of the mind lived in retirement from the public world. Recent scholarship has suggested that literary Royalism might have been able to inculcate a politicized otium, a retirement which is in itself engaged (Loxley 1997). Walton's account of fishing is obviously interested in ensuring a systematic and hierarchical view of the world. He is transparently conservative in his world-views but a narrowly political reading can at the same time fail to do justice to the text's joy in simplicity and enthusiasm for life and learning.
Walton contributed an elegy to Donne's posthumous 1633 Poems and in 1640 published the ‘Life and Death of Dr Donne’. The ‘Life’ drew upon their relationship and undertook to produce an intimate, personal account of the poet. He subsequently wrote ‘Lives’ of Sir Henry Wotton, George Herbert, Richard Hooker, and Robert Sanderson, bishop of Lincoln. Walton knew all of his subjects, and his writings are distinguished by familiarity and affection. He established a particular style of literary biography that influenced all subsequent practitioners of the genre, but again there was an indirect political and religious agenda: Walton offered the subjects of his lives as exemplars of a specifically Anglican tradition of learning, moderation, and good sense.
SEE ALSO: Cotton, Charles, the younger; Donne, John; Herbert, George; Herrick, Robert; Hooker, Richard; Jonson, Ben; Wotton, Henry
- Royalism and poetry in the English civil wars: the drawn sword. Macmillan Press, Basingstoke. (1997)
- Walton's lives: conformist commemorations and the rise of biography. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (2002)
- ‘Study to be quiet’: genre and politics in Izaak Walton's Compleat angler. English Literary History 22, 24-37. (1992)
- Izaak Walton. Twayne, New York. (1998)
Born in Stafford, Walton went to London in 1618 and was apprenticed to a draper, and then an ironmonger, eventually making...
Walton wrote lives of Sir Henry Wotton (1651), Richard Hooker (1665) and George Herbert (1670). The first edition of the...
Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics, that it can never be fully learnt. The Compleat Angler , Epistle to...