Walton, Izaak

views updated Jun 08 2018


(b. Stafford, England, 9 August 1593; d. Winchester, England, 15 December 1683), zoology.

Although Walton made no great claims to scientific originality, no author better illustrates the attitude toward natural philosophy in mid-seventeenth century England. Religion and natural history were then so closely connected and their interactions so numerous that separation must involve severe historical distortion.

Walton’s early life is obscure. Son of Gervase Walton of Stafford, a yeoman, Walton probably attended a local grammar school before settling with his sister in London. There he served an apprenticeship and in 1618 gained admission to the Ironmongers’ Company. As a prosperous tradesman he was married twice, to Rachel Floud (d. 1640) and to Anne Ken (d. 1662), both of whom came from well-connected Anglican families, thereby enhancing Walton’s social status and literary connections. His life was long, comfortable, and uneventful, even during the civil wars, which left him untouched in spite of his strong Royalist sympathies.

Walton is primarily remembered as author of The Compleat Angler, but his more long–term and extensive literary activity was as a biographer. His valuable contribution to literature and Anglican apologetics developed as a result of a friendship with John Donne, Walton’s parish priest. His biographies of Donne (1640) and of another friend, Sir Henry Wotton (1651)—like the subsequent biographies of Thomas Hooker (1665), George Herbert (1670), and Robert Sanderson (1678)—provide a valuable source about a group of figures who considerably influenced the outlook of natural philosophers in the later seventeenth century. The biographies also contain significant information about Bacon, Savile, and Boyle.

Walton’s Anglican associations are important for appreciating the origin and bias of The Compleat Angler. Angling was a favorite pastime for a whole stream of Anglican divines, from the Elizabethan Dean Alexander Nowell to Walton’s friend Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon. Nowell’s catechism may even have prompted Walton to adopt the didactic dialogue form for his book. Direct instigation to write on this subject came from Wotton, who himself had intended to compose a treatise in praise of fishing, Composed at a time when the established church greatly needed support, The Compleat Angler was a vehicle for many favorite themes in Anglican theology.

Walton’s enthusiasm for fishing gave him the keen eye of a naturalist his knowledge being particularly sound on a wide range of freshwater fish. Contrasting with the stereotyped compendiums on natural history, Walton introduced a wide range of “observations of the nature and breeding, and seasons, and catching of Fish.” His own observations were compared with scrupulously acknowledged information drawn from such authors as Gesner, Scala Johann Dubravius, and Bacon. He was much less familiar with authors unavailable in translation, perhaps a reflection on his limited classical education and a notable contrast with the similarly disposed Sir Thomas Browne. Walton also drew material from the small vernacular literature on angling; his debt to the dialogue The Arte of Angling (1577) is obvious but extremely difficult to establish precisely. Walton far exceeded his precursors in attaining a balance between natural history and practical advice. A final component of religious, moral, and philosophical digression gave The Compleat Angler an extremely wide appeal. Among the topical scientific references was a consideration of Helmont’s willow tree experiment, which was cited to support the contention that water was the prime element in nature. After the first modest edition of 1653, the book was revised four times by Walton. Since then almost three hundred editions and translations have appeared, making Walton one of the best-known authors in the English language.


I. Original Works. Walton’s Lives appeared separately between 1640 and 1678; subsequently they appeared in collected editions. The Lives and their revisions are discussed in great detail in D. Novarr, The Making of Walton’s Lives (Ithaca, N.Y., 1958). The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation was published anonymously in 1653; it was greatly revised and augmented in 1655, and minor revisions were made in 1661, 1668, and 1678. The most detailed edition of The Compleat Angler is that of George Washington Bethune (New York-London, 1847). B. S. Horne, The Compleat Angler 1653 – 1967 (New York, 1970), lists the editions. For a collected edition of Walton’s works, see G. Keynes, The Compleat Walton (London, 1929).

II. Secondary Literature. No biography is adequate, but see Andrew Lang, “Izaak Walton,” in Dictionary of National Biography; and Stapleton Morton, Izaak Walton and His Friends 2nd ed. (London, 1904). A more critical evaluation is A. M. Coon, “The Life of Izzak Walton,” unpublished Ph.D. diss., Cornell University (1937). On natural history, see R. B. Marston, Walton and Some Writers on Fish and Fishing (London, 1894). The Arte of Angling (1577), which was discovered recently, has been edited by G. E. Bentley (Princeton, 1956); its relevance to Walton is examined critically by M. S. Goldman, in Studies in Honor of T. W. Baldwin, D. C. Allen, ed. (Urbana, III., 1958), 185 – 204. J. R. Cooper, The Art of the Compleat Angler, (Durham, N. C., 1968), examines the stylistic sources for The Compleat Angler.

Charles Webster

Izaak Walton

views updated Jun 11 2018

Izaak Walton

The English writer and biographer Izaak Walton (1593-1683) was the author of The Compleat Angler. His works show him to have been a kindly and religious man with a quiet sense of humor and rare common sense.

Izaak Walton was born at Stafford on Aug. 9, 1593. Little is known of his childhood and early youth. By 1624 he was established in London as a cloth merchant after a period of apprenticeship, perhaps to his uncle, a haber-dasher. Walton's shop was located in St. Dunstan's parish, and he became acquainted with John Donne, who was then vicar. In 1626 Walton married Rachel Floud, a great-grandniece of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. She died in 1640.

That same year Walton's first literary work, a life of Donne, was published. Donne had died in 1631, and a mutual friend, Sir Henry Wotton, had asked Walton to collect material for a life he was writing to preface an edition of Donne's sermons. Wotton died before writing the life, and Walton took on the task.

Walton continued in his business until 1644, when the civil war turned to the favor of the Puritans. He seems to have retired from business shortly before the battle of Marston Moor. In 1646 he married Anne Ken, half sister to Bishop Thomas Ken. In 1651 Walton published a life of Sir Henry Wotton as a preface to Reliquiae Wottonianae.

In 1653 Walton published his most famous book, The Compleat Angler; or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation. Ostensibly a book on fishing, the volume mingles philosophy and politics with directions for hooking a worm or catching a trout. It is filled with apt quotations, songs, poems, and anecdotes and gives one a full sense of Walton's personality—his gentle disposition, his cheerful piety, and his Anglican politics. The book was so popular with his contemporaries that it was expanded considerably and underwent five editions during Walton's lifetime.

Very little is known of the way in which Walton spent the last 30 years of his life. His second wife died in 1662. After this time he seems to have made his home at Farnham Castle with Bishop George Morley. In 1665 Walton published his life of the great Anglican bishop of Elizabethan times, Thomas Hooker. Five years later Walton published his life of the Anglican poet and clergyman George Herbert. In 1670 Walton's four lives were collected and revised. In 1678, at the age of 85, he published his last biography, a life of Bishop Robert Sanderson. Walton died at Winchester on Dec. 15, 1683.

Further Reading

The standard biography is that of Sir Harris Nicolas, prefixed to an edition of Walton's The Compleat Angler (1836). More recent full-length studies are Stapleton Martin, Isaak Walton and His Friends (1904), and Edward Marston, Thomas Ken and Izaak Walton (1908). An interesting study of Walton as a biographer is David Novarr, The Making of Walton's Lives (1958).

Additional Sources

Haim, José, Twenty ballads stuck about the wall: a dramatic biography of Izaak Walton, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Dorrance Pub., 1993. □

Walton, Izaak

views updated Jun 27 2018

Walton, Izaak (1593–1683). Biographer. Of Staffordshire yeoman stock and member of the Ironmongers' Company, this kindly Fleet Street tradesman lived through political and religious turmoil at ease with the higher clergy, and sufficiently royalist to be entrusted briefly with Charles II's ‘lesser George’ jewel (1651). Immortalized through the quiet charm of his Compleat Angler (1653), where he is pastoralist rather than preceptor, he was better known to contemporaries for his lives of Donne, Wootton, Hooker, Herbert, and Sanderson, and as provider of tributes for friends' works. The serenity and gentle humour of his ‘mild pen’ prompted sentimental rather than critical appreciation in the 18th cent., after Johnson's admiration of the lives had led to a literary revival, but later commentators have emphasized the subjectivity and irregularities, though admitting his good intentions. Ending his days with family at Winchester, he was buried in the cathedral there.

A. S. Hargreaves

Walton, Izaak

views updated May 29 2018

Walton, Izaak (1593–1683) English biographer and writer. His lives of Donne (1640), Sir Henry Wotton (1651), Richard Hooker (1665), George Herbert (1670), and Bishop Sanderson (1678) are the first truly biographical works in English literature. His most famous work is The Compleat Angler (1653).