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 on Izaak Walton

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 Biography Sources

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