Izaak Walton lived through most of the turbulent years of the seventeenth century, but he remained at heart an Elizabethan, and it is from this perspective that he wrote his fine biographies, lives of outstanding clergymen and scholars of his day: John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, and Robert Sanderson. The works appeared over a period of almost forty years, but the stable philosophy of their author gives them many points of similarity.
While Walton’s subjects were unquestionably men of vastly different personalities, his own character casts an almost saintly light over all of them; emotional struggles, temptation, and personal vices play almost no part in their lives as Walton interpreted them. His accounts are not psychological studies; he is interested rather in painting portraits of virtuous men. His studies are really descendants of the saints’ lives that formed the majority of early English biographies. He pays tribute in each of his works to the virtues of devoutness, humility, charitableness, and learning.
Walton’s biographies have much in common in their construction, as well as in the presentation of the characters of the main figures. The author inevitably begins with a discussion of the family background of his subject, then comments on his early education. He treats the mature career of each man partly through a summary of his activities, partly through anecdotes that illustrate special personality traits or talents. Walton knew most of the men whose lives he recounts, and he occasionally reproduces his own conversations with them. He also quotes letters, poems, and even wills as evidence of characteristics of his subjects.
Walton’s style is relatively personal; he often speaks in the first person, and he does not hesitate to make known his own views on the political or religious questions he happens to be discussing. In spite of this personal quality, the style itself is relatively formal and balanced, typical of the prose of his day. His vocabulary is dignified, but natural, closer to that of Dryden than to that of the more imaginative writers of Jacobean prose.
The Life of John Donne is the most famous of the five; in it Walton concentrates upon the later years of the great poet and preacher, almost ignoring the youthful works that suggest Donne’s streak of wit and cynicism. He is especially interested in recounting the poet’s theological development and his long struggle to consider himself worthy to be ordained to the priesthood. Walton also devotes considerable attention to Donne’s marriage, the problems it created in his early career and the economic difficulties he and his family endured for years, along with the joys it brought him. A number of Donne’s poems to his wife are quoted to show the depth of his feeling for her.
Walton shows in these works a conviction that the manner of a man’s death reveals the essence of his character. He was himself present at Donne’s deathbed, and he records with admiration Donne’s devotion and concern for his parishioners—of whom Walton was one—his family, and his friends.
Sir Henry Wotton was the only layman among Walton’s subjects. He grew up during the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I, became a close friend of the Earl of Essex, and prudently chose the time of Essex’s ultimately fatal conflict with the queen to travel extensively on the Continent. He made his political fortune, according to Walton, when he overheard, on his travels in Italy, a plot against Elizabeth’s successor, James VI of Scotland, and went to this monarch in disguise to warn him. When James became King of England, Wotton was given a number of important diplomatic positions, notably the ambassadorship to the Venetian states. He ended his career as provost of Eton College, where his biographer pictures him at his own studies, patronizing the arts, and giving special encouragement to the most promising of his students.
Walton characterizes Wotton...
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