Izaak Walton Essay - Critical Essays

Walton, Izaak


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.

Principal Works

“The Life and Death of Dr Donne, Late Deane of St Pauls London” [published in LXXX Sermons preached by that learned and reverend divine, Iohn Donne, Dr in Divinity, Late Deane of the Cathedrall Church of S. Pauls London] (biography) 1640

“The Life of Sir Henry Wotton” [published in Reliquiae Wottonianae] (biography) 1651

The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man's Recreation. Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing, Not unworthy the perusal of most Anglers (treatise) 1653

The Life of Mr. Rich. Hooker, The Author of those Learned Books of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (biography) 1665

The Life of Mr. George Herbert (biography) 1670

The Lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert. To which are added some Letters written by Mr. George Herbert, at his being in Cambridge: With others to his Mother, the Lady Magdalen Herbert, written by John Donne, afterwards Dean of St. Pauls (biographies) 1670

The Life of Dr. Sanderson, Late Bishop of Lincoln. To which is added, some Short Tracts or Cases of Conscience, written by the said Bishop (biography) 1678

Love and Truth: in two modest and peaceable letters, concerning the distempers of the present times. Written from a quiet and conformable Citizen of London, to two busie and factious Shopkeepers in Coventry [as Anonymous] (political tract) 1680


R. B. Marston (essay date 1894)

SOURCE: Marston, R. B. “Introductory.” In Walton and Some Earlier Writers on Fish and Fishing. London: Elliot Stock, 1894.

[In the essay which follows, Marston relates his affection for Walton's Compleat Angler and considers its importance among texts about fishing.]

Have you read The Compleat Angler? If you have, and are also acquainted with the Author's other writings, then these pages may perchance refresh your remembrance of them; but their object and the hope of the writer is to make Walton and a few earlier angling writers known to some to whom they are only names.

Looking back through a life, a never-failing delight of which...

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H. J. Oliver (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Oliver, H. J. “Izaak Walton as Author of Love and Truth and Thealma and Clearchus,” in Review of English Studies, 21, No. 97 (January, 1949): 24-37.

[In the following essay, Oliver considers the evidence that Walton wrote Love and Truth and Thealma and Clearchus, arguing that similarities in style and language between these works and his known writings suggest Walton is the author.]

The attribution to Izaak Walton of the tract Love and Truth and the narrative poem Thealma and Clearchus has been common enough in the history of Walton scholarship; the weight of authority is, if anything, for his authorship of the...

(The entire section is 6130 words.)

Margaret Bottrall (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Bottrall, Margaret. “Izaak Walton.” In Izaak Walton, pp. 7-35. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955.

[In the following excerpt, Bottrall offers an overview of Walton s work, praising him as a writer with continual appeal.]


The mention of Izaak Walton's name immediately suggests The Compleat Angler, the contemplative man's recreation, the peaceful fisherman, book in hand, depicted in the memorial window in Winchester Cathedral. It seems almost treasonable to allege that the extraordinary popularity of the book has resulted in a distorted picture of its author; but extraordinary is the mildest word that can be applied to...

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Marcus Selden Goldman (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Goldman, Marcus Selden. “Izaak Walton and The Arte of Angling, 1577.” In Studies in Honor of T. W. Baldwin, edited by Don Cameron Allen, pp. 185-204. Urbana, III.: University of Illinois Press, 1958.

[In the essay below, Goldman investigates similarities between the annonymous The Arte of Angling and Walton's The Compleat Angler.]

The Rev. Dr. George Washington Bethune, its first American editor, was, beyond question, one of the wisest and most learned of the many wise and learned men who, in the course of three centuries, have provided Walton's masterpiece with appreciative commentary and elucidative notes. Everywhere evident, his wisdom and...

(The entire section is 10443 words.)

David Novarr (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Novarr, David. “The ‘Almost Incredible Story’ of George Herbert,” in The Making of Walton's Lives, pp. 301-61. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958.

[In the following excerpt, Novarr develops the thesis that due to timing and subject matter, Walton was free to express his beliefs on religion to their fullest in The Life of Herbert.]

The Life of Herbert, perhaps even more than the Life of Donne, was a labor of love. The Life of Hooker was in many ways Walton's most arduous biographical task; the Life of Herbert conformed most closely to the desires of his heart. It appeared early in 1670, and, like the Life of...

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R. C. Bald (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Bald, R. C. “Historical Doubts Respecting Walton's Life of Donne.” In Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age, edited by Millar MacLure and F. W. Watt, pp. 69-84. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.

[In the essay below, Bald catalogs the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Walton's Life of Donne.]

Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard the Third is a classic. It can be read with pleasure more than once, and one's interest in the presentation of the figure of Richard is independent of the fact that for over two hundred years doubts have been cast on More's veracity. The book, it has been...

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Clayton D. Lein (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Lein, Clayton D. “Art and Structure in Walton's Life of Mr. George Herbert,” in University of Toronto Quarterly 46, No. 2 (Winter, 1976): 162-76.

[In the essay below, Lein posits that The Life of Mr. George Herbert represents the pinnacle of Walton's biographical writing, building upon his earlier foundation and adding unique elements of style which reflect Walton's view of Herbert.]

When Izaak Walton presented his Life of Mr. George Herbert as a ‘Free-will-offering,’ he provided a clue to its character. The other biographies, he would have us believe, he had been compelled to write, some to honour the obligations of friendship,...

(The entire section is 6942 words.)

Anna K. Nardo (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Nardo, Anna K. “A ‘recreation of a recreation’: Reading The Compleat Angler,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, 79, No. 3 (Summer, 1980): 302-11.

[In the essay below, Nardo explores the reasons for The Complete Angler's popularity, citing Walton's recreation of an imaginary, relaxing fishing trip and praising it as an exercise in the “unity of vision.”]

Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler is a puzzling book on two counts: its curious form and its immense and lasting popularity. Part fishing manual (detailing, for example, the feeding habits of the “Tyrant” Pike, the correct methods for scouring “gentles,” and the best recipe...

(The entire section is 4516 words.)

Raoul Granqvist (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Granqvist, Raoul. “Izaak Walton's Lives in the Nineteenth and the Early Twentieth Century: A Study of a Cult Object,” in Studia Neophilologica, 54, No. 2 (1982): 247-61.

[In the essay below, Granqvist traces the way in which 19th-century intellectual trends shaped the interpretation of Walton and his writings.]

Biography in the early nineteenth century was a thriving business. The improved printing facilities, the extension of literacy, and the Sunday school movement were factors that originated and inspired mass production of biographies. The attention paid to biography was widespread and generous. Obscure semi-celebrities, poets, smugglers,...

(The entire section is 7970 words.)

Anthony Low (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Low, Anthony. “The Compleat Angler's ‘Baite’; or, The Subverter Subverted,” in John Donne Journal 4, No. 1 (1985): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Low posits that in The Compleat Angler, Walton provides an alternate reading of John Donne's poem “The Baite.”]

Donne's aversion to pastoral landscapes and to country matters in general is well known.1 His one curious essay into pastoral, “The Baite,” has been variously interpreted: sometimes as a heavy-handed failure at conventional pastoral, sometimes as a light-hearted parody of the mode, and sometimes as an anatomy of love to which the pastoral elements are more or less...

(The entire section is 4727 words.)

William H. Epstein (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Epstein, William H. “Altering the Life-Text: Walton's Life of Donne.” In Recognizing Biography, pp. 13-33. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Epstein analyzes the structure of Walton's Life of Donne, pointing out the author's unique contributions to the biography genre.]

“Being speechless, and seeing heaven by that illumination by which he saw it; … he closed his own eyes; and then disposed his hands and body into such a posture as required not the least alteration by those that came to shroud him.”

(Walton's Life of Donne)


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David Hill Radcliffe (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Radcliffe, David Hill. “‘Study to Be Quiet’: Genre and Politics in Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler,” in English Literary Renaissance, 22, No. 1 (Winter, 1992): 95-111.

[In the essay below, Radcliffe examines the issues of discourse, inclusion, and community in The Compleat Angler.]

Izaak Walton's famous discourse on angling and devotion exhibits the values of inclusiveness and heterogeneity rather than exclusion and methodical rigor. These are not values generally associated with discursive formations, nor is the “brotherhood of anglers” typical of what recent criticism regards as a discursive community. Walton's discourse can thus serve as a...

(The entire section is 6803 words.)

W. Gerald Marshall (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Marshall, W. Gerald. “Time in Walton's Lives,” in Studies in English Literature, 32, No. 3 (Summer, 1992): 429-42.

[In the essay below, Marshall analyzes Walton's use of time in his biographies by which he heightens the apparent piousness of his subjects.]

It is clear from the prefaces to a number of his later biographies that Izaak Walton becomes increasingly aware of time, especially as regards the long duration of his own life and the inherent burdens of growing old. He writes that “especially at this time of my Age … for I am now past the Seventy of my Age,” the compiling of his biography of Richard Hooker has become a “work of...

(The entire section is 5408 words.)

Jessica Martin (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Martin, Jessica. Introduction to Izaak Walton: Selected Writings, edited by Jessica Martin, pp. Vii-xxvii. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Martin attempts to reconcile the persona of Walton as known through his writings with the facts of his life.]

In Winchester, on 9 August 1683, Izaak Walton wrote his last piece of prose—his Will. He was ninety years old. On 24 October he had it witnessed and sealed with the bloodstone seal John Donne had given him, which he habitually used. Some weeks later, on 15 December, he died in Winchester, when the weather was exceptionally cold.

From this once private document, which...

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P. G. Stanwood (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Stanwood, P. G. “Walton's Fame and Influence.”In Izaak Walton pp. 78-101. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the excerpt below, Stanwood offers an overview of critical scholarship on Walton since 1640 and discusses the reasons for enduring critical interest in Walton's works.]

Except for the period from 1676 to 1750, Walton's works have always been in print. Sometimes the Lives were especially renowned, sometimes The Compleat Angler was preeminent. But the unassuming linen draper's reputation has remained constant in a surprising way, and his works have been influential as well as generally fashionable. His readers have included notable...

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Further Reading


Bevan, Jonquil. “Anglicans and Anglers.” In Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler: The Art of Recreation, pp. 1-35. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1988.

Links Walton's concerns with Anglican ideals and teachings evident in his biographies with similar concerns in The Compleat Angler.

Butt, John. “Izaak Walton's Methods in Biography.” Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, Vol. XIX, pp. 67-84. Collected by D. Nichol Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934.

Considers the events and sources which influenced Walton's biographies.

Butt, John. “Izaak Walton.” In...

(The entire section is 339 words.)