Izaak Walton, often called the first professional English biographer, was born near Stafford in 1593. In his youth he was apprenticed to an ironmonger in London. Becoming a freeman in the company in 1618, he prospered as a dealer in ironware until his retirement during the English civil war. Although he was a Royalist in his sympathies and although his interests were literary, he never became involved in the political or literary contentions of the times. In retirement he devoted himself to his favorite pastime, fishing, and developed the charming yet authoritative discourse in The Compleat Angler. Largely self-educated, Walton began his literary career in his late forties when he was commissioned by Sir Henry Wotton to collect material for a projected life of John Donne. Walton, who called himself “the poorest, the meanest, of all [Donne’s] friends,” had been a member of Donne’s parish of St. Dunstan’s. When Wotton died before writing the biography, Walton undertook the task. The result, published as an introduction to the 1640 edition of Donne’s Sermons, has become an integral part of the great editions of Donne’s poetry and prose. Walton followed this biography with a life of Wotton in 1651. He subsequently wrote biographies of such worthies as Bishop Sanderson, Richard Hooker, and George Herbert.
Walton presented all his material from a Christian point of view, including The Compleat Angler. More than a study of a man’s recreational pursuits, this book also champions the Christian virtues of peace, friendship, and goodness as opposed to the money-getting scramble of the city. One of Walton’s aims, to show how one may find peace of mind, typified a pervading seventeenth century desire to seek relief from the world’s woes in nature and the works of God. The effortless clarity of the style and the freshness of the anecdotes make the work especially attractive, just as the personality of Walton himself facilitated the many friendships that allowed him to gather material for his less well-known biographies. The bucolic appeal of The Compleat Angler is universal; the more than three hundred editions printed since 1653 testify to its enduring popularity.