(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Izaak Walton 1593-1683

English biographer, nonfiction writer, and poet.

Walton was one of the most popular writers of the seventeenth century, and has garnered readership and critical attention to the present day. His most prominent work, The Compleat Angler, has been printed in more than 300 editions since its first publication in 1653, and has been translated into several languages. On one level, The Compleat Angler is a fictional account of a fishing trip and an instruction manual on the finer points of fishing, but Walton also uses his work as a treatise on Anglican and moral philosophy, and to advocate a simple rural life. Scholars also credit Walton with writing the first biography of literary merit, The Life of John Donne, in 1640. His series of five biographies on religious leaders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, collectively referred to as The Lives, was widely hailed by his contemporaries, and has significantly influenced the scope and style of biography as a genre.

Biographical Information

Walton was born at Stafford on August 9, 1593, to Jervis Walton, an alehouse-keeper, and his wife, Anne. Although few details are available regarding Walton's early life, it is believed that he attended the Edward VI Grammar School in Stafford and later moved to London where he served as an apprentice to his uncle, a linen draper. By 1624 Walton had established himself as a cloth merchant with a shop located in St. Dunstan's parish. Despite his lack of formal education, Walton developed an interest in literature and befriended several literary figures, including Ben Jonson and John Donne. Walton was also well-connected in clerical circles, and in 1626 married Rachel Floud, a great-grandniece of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Their union lasted fourteen years and resulted in seven children, all of whom died before reaching adulthood. During this time, Sir Henry Wotton asked Walton to assist him in gathering materials for a biography of Donne. Wotton, however, died in 1639 and Walton took on the task of writing the piece himself. In 1640, the year of his wife's death, Walton published this work, “The Life and Death of Dr Donne, Late Deane of St Pauls London,” as a preface to Donne's collected sermons. In 1646 he married Anne Ken, the half-sister of Bishop Thomas Ken. The couple had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. A staunch Anglican and a royalist, Walton continued his business in London until the Civil War turned in favor of the Puritans. During Oliver Cromwell's time in power Walton published “The Life of Sir Henry Wotton” in Reliquiae Wottonianae (1651), a collection of Wotton's writings, and the first edition of The Compleat Angler. Following the Restoration, Walton served as the steward of Dr. George Morley, Bishop of Worcester from 1660 to 1662. Walton's second wife died in 1662, and Walton followed Morley to Winchester. It is not known if he continued to act as Morley's steward but he remained on favorable terms with the bishop. In his later years Walton published three more biographies: The Life of Mr. Richard Hooker (1665), The Life of Mr. George Herbert (1670), and The Life of Dr. Sanderson (1678). Walton died in December 1683 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Major Works

Walton's The Compleat Angler, a treatise in dialogue form, explores the author's favorite pastime while at the same time concerning itself with larger questions of philosophy and religion. By far Walton's best known work, The Compleat Angler is presented as a conversation between Piscator, an angler, who instructs Venator, a hunter, in the joys and art of fishing, as well as the virtues of rural life and Anglican philosophy. Piscator explains the habits and biology of different kinds of fish and details the best ways of catching and dressing them. He also explains the characteristics of many of the more notable rivers and fish-ponds in England. Interspersed throughout the work are lines of verse and songs that Piscator and Venator recite to one another as they discuss angling. Critics regard “The Life and Death of Dr Donne” as the first biography of literary merit and credit Walton with revolutionizing the biography form, establishing standards that still hold regarding thoroughness of research and the self-effacement of the narrator. Walton employed the same techniques in subsequent works examining the lives of notable Anglican leaders George Herbert, Richard Hooker, Henry Wotton, and Robert Sanderson, referred to collectively as The Lives. Walton infused his writing with respect and admiration for his subject to such a degree that it shaped the material he included and the style in which he wrote. Walton's goal was to depict these men's lives as testimonies to piousness, devotion, and the Anglican faith. He was uninterested in providing a comprehensive account of each subject's life, and in fact, Walton altered quotes, revised events and eliminated material that contradicted his theses. Though many of the dates and facts are inaccurate, the popularity of these works has been significant and sustained.

Critical Reception

Walton has enjoyed popular success and critical praise since the first publication of his works. During his lifetime, “The Life and Death of Dr Donne” was issued several times as a separate publication, and his other four biographies enjoyed similar success. In the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson pronounced The Lives one of his favorite books. Although critics in the nineteenth century began questioning the historical and factual accuracy of the biographies, recent scholars have defended the works. William H. Epstein and others have stressed the lasting influence of The Lives and have credited Walton with establishing techniques and practices in biographical writing that would be employed for the next three hundred years. Others have maintained that The Lives should not be held to the strict standards of academic rigor applied to today's historical studies, and have argued that Walton's intention in these works was to praise his subjects and to fashion their life experiences into an endorsement of moral living and piety. It was Walton's evocation of these virtues in his subjects that William Wordsworth extolled in his poem “Walton's Book of Lives.” In the sonnet “Written Upon a Blank Leaf in ‘The Complete Angler’” Wordsworth similarly praised Walton's depiction of the morally beneficial influence of nature in his most famous work. Others in the nineteenth century expressed similar admiration for The Compleat Angler, even as they began to deprecate Walton's biographical works. Charles Lamb urged Samuel Taylor Coleridge to read The Compleat Angler, lauding its “innocence, purity, and simplicity of heart.” Critical regard for The Compleat Angler has steadily risen, and the prevailing view of Walton as a simple, honest, and naive writer—which emerged even during his own lifetime, in part as a result of his lack of formal education—has given way to a view of Walton as a conscious artist whose works reveal a purpose, skill and wit far greater than previously acknowledged.