To Master Isaak Walton
From Letters to Dead Authors
Father Isaak,--When I would be quiet and go angling it is my custom to carry
in my wallet thy pretty book, 'The Compleat Angler.' Here, methinks, if I find
not trout I shall find content, and good company, and sweet songs, fair
milkmaids, and country mirth. For you are to know that trout be now scarce,
and whereas he was ever a fearful fish, he hath of late become so wary that
none but the cunningest anglers may be even with him.
It is not as it was in your time, Father, when a man might leave his shop in
Fleet Street, of a holiday, and, when he had stretched his legs up Tottenham
Hill, come lightly to meadows chequered with waterlilies and lady-smocks, and
so fall to his sport. Nay, now have the houses so much increased, like a
spreading sore (through the breaking of that excellent law of the
Conscientious King and blessed Martyr, whereby building beyond the walls was
forbidden), that the meadows are all swallowed up in streets. And as to the
River Lea, wherein you took many a good trout, I read in the news sheets that
'its bed is many inches thick in horrible filth, and the air for more than
half a mile on each side of it is polluted with a horrible, sickening stench,'
so that we stand in dread of a new Plague, called the Cholera. And so it is
all about London for many miles, and if a man, at heavy charges, betake
himself to the fields, lo you, folk are grown so greedy that none will suffer
a stranger to fish in his water.
So poor anglers are in sore straits. Unless a man be rich and can pay great
rents, he may not fish, in England, and hence spring the discontents of the
times, for the angler is full of content, if he do but take trout, but if he
be driven from the waterside, he falls, perchance, into evil company, and
cries out to divide the property of the gentle folk. As many now do, even
among Parliament, men, whom you loved not, Father Isaak, neither do I love
them more than Reason and Scripture bid each of us be kindly to his neighbour.
But, behold, the causes of the ill content are not yet all expressed, for even
where a man hath licence to fish, he will hardly take trout in our age, unless
he be all the more cunning. For the fish, harried this way and that by so many
of your disciples, is exceeding shy and artful, nor will he bite at a fly
unless it falleth lightly, just above his mouth, and floateth dry over him,
for all the world like the natural _ephemeris_. And we may no longer angle
with worm for him, nor with penk or minnow, nor with the natural fly, as was
your manner, but only with the artificial, for the more difficulty the more
diversion. For my part I may cry, like Viator in your book, 'Master, I can
neither catch with the first nor second Angle: I have no fortune.'
So we fare in England, but somewhat better north of the Tweed, where trout are
less wary, but for the most part small, except in the extreme rough north,
among horrid hills and lakes. Thither, Master, as methinks you may remember,
went Richard Franck, that called himself _Philanthropus_, and was, as it were,
the Columbus of anglers, discovering for them a new Hyperborean world. But
Franck, doubtless, is now an angler in the Lake of Darkness, with Nero and
other tyrants, for he followed after Cromwell, the man of blood, in the old
riding days. How wickedly doth Franck boast of that leader of the giddy
multitude, 'when they raged, and became restless to find out misery for
themselves and others, and the rabble would herd themselves together,' as you
said, 'and endeavour to govern and act in spite of authority.' So you wrote;
and what said Franck, that recreant angler? Doth he not praise 'Ireton, Vane,
Nevill, and Martin, and the most renowned, valorous, and victorious conqueror,
Oliver Cromwell.' Natheless, with all his sins on his head, this Franck
discovered Scotland for anglers, and my heart turns to him when he praises
'the glittering and resolute streams of Tweed.'
In those wilds of Assynt and Loch Rannoch, Father, we, thy followers, may yet
take trout, and forget the evils of the times. But, to be done with Franck,
how harshly he speaks of thee and thy book. 'For you may dedicate your opinion
to what scribbling putationer you please; the _Compleat_Angler_ if you will,
who tells you of a tedious fly story, extravagantly collected from antiquated
authors, such as Gesner and Dubravius.' Again, he speaks of 'Isaac Walton,
whose authority to me seems alike authentick, as is the general opinion of the
vulgar prophet,' &c.
Certain I am that Franck, if a better angler than thou, was a worse man, who,
writing his 'Dialogues Piscatorial' or 'Northern Memoirs' five years after the
world welcomed thy 'Compleat Angler,' was jealous of thy favour with the
people, and, may be, hated thee for thy loyalty and sound faith. But, Master,
like a peaceful man avoiding contention, thou didst never answer this
blustering Franck, but wentest quietly about thy quiet Lea, and left him his
roaring Brora and windy Assynt. How could this noisy man know thee--and know
thee he did, having argued with thee in Stafford--and not love Isaak Walton? A
pedant angler, I call him, a plaguy angler, so let him huff away, and turn we
to thee and to thy sweet charm in fishing for men.
How often, studying in thy book, have I hummed to myself that of Horace--
Laudis amore tumes? Sunt certa piacula quae te
Ter pure lecto poterunt recreare libello.
So healing a book for the frenzy of fame is thy discourse on meadows, and pure
streams, and the country life. How peaceful, men say, and blessed must have
been the life of this old man, how lapped in content, and hedged about by his
own humility from the world! They forget, who speak thus, that thy years,
which were many, were also evil, or would have seemed evil to divers that had
tasted of thy fortunes. Thou wert poor, but that, to thee, was no sorrow, for
greed of money was thy detestation. Thou wert of lowly rank, in an age when
gentle blood was alone held in regard; yet tiny virtues made thee hosts of
friends, and chiefly among religious men, bishops, and doctors of the Church.
Thy private life was not unacquainted with sorrow; thy first wife and all her
fair children were taken from thee like flowers in spring, though, in thine
age, new love and new offspring comforted thee like 'the primrose of the later
year.' Thy private griefs might have made thee bitter, or melancholy, so might
the sorrows of the State and of the Church, which were deprived of their heads
by cruel men, despoiled of their wealth, the pious driven, like thee, from
their homes; fear everywhere, everywhere robbery and confusion: all this ruin
might have angered another temper. But thou, Father, didst bear all with so
much sweetness as perhaps neither natural temperament, nor a firm faith, nor
the love of angling could alone have displayed. For we see many anglers (as
witness Richard Franck aforesaid) who are angry men, and myself, when I get my
hooks entangled at every cast in a tree, have come nigh to swear prophane.
Also we see religious men that are sour and fanatical, no rare thing in the
party that professes godliness. But neither private sorrow nor public grief
could abate thy natural kindliness, nor shake a religion which was not
untried, but had, indeed, passed through the furnace like fine gold. For if we
find not Faith at all times easy, because of the oppositions of Science, and
the searching curiosity of men's minds, neither was Faith a matter of course
in thy day. For the learned and pious were greatly tossed about, like worthy
Mr. Chillingworth, by doubts wavering between the Church of Rome and the
Reformed Church of England. The humbler folk, also, were invited, now here,
now there, by the clamours of fanatical Nonconformists, who gave themselves
out to be somebody, while Atheism itself was not without many to witness to
it. Therefore, such a religion as thine was not, so to say, a mere innocence
of evil in the things of our Belief, but a reasonable and grounded faith,
strong in despite of oppositions. Happy was the man in whom temper, and
religion, and the love of the sweet country and an angler's pastime so
conveniently combined; happy the long life which held in its hand that
threefold clue through the labyrinth of human fortunes! Around thee Church and
State might fall in ruins, and might be rebuilded, and thy tears would not be
bitter, nor thy triumph cruel.
Thus, by God's blessing, it befell thee
Nec turpem senectam
Degere, nec cithara carentem.
I would, Father, that I conld get at the verity about thy poems. Those
recommendatory verses with which thou didst grace the Lives of Dr. Donne and
others of thy friends, redound more to the praise of thy kind heart than thy
fancy. But what or whose was the pastoral poem of 'Thealma and Clearchus,'
which thou didst set about printing in 1678, and gavest to the world in 1683?
Thou gavest John Chalkhill for the author's name, and a John Chalkhill of thy
kindred died at Winchester, being eighty years of his age, in 1679. Now thou
speakest of John Chalkhill as 'a friend of Edmund Spenser's,' and how could
Are they right who hold that John Chalkhill was but a name of a friend,
borrowed by thee out of modesty, and used as a cloak to cover poetry of thine
own inditing? When Mr. Flatman writes of Chalkhill, 't is in words well fitted
to thine own merit:
Happy old man, whose worth all mankind knows
Except himself, who charitably shows
The ready road to virtue and to praise,
The road to many long and happy days.
However it be, in that road, by quiet streams and through green pastures, thou
didst walk all thine almost century of years, and we, who stray into thy path
out of the highway of life, we seem to hold thy hand, and listen to thy
cheerful voice. If our sport be worse, may our content be equal, and our
praise, therefore, none the less. Father, if Master Stoddard, the great fisher
of Tweed-side, be with thee, greet him for me, and thank him for those songs
of his, and perchance he will troll thee a catch of our dear River.
Tweed! windin~ and wild! where the heart is unbound,
They know not, they dream not, who linger around,
How the saddened will smile, and the wasted rewin
From thee-- the bliss withercd within.
Or perhaps thou wilt better love,
The lanesome Tala and the Lyne,
And Mahon wi' its mountain rills,
An' Etterick, whose waters twine
Wi' Yarrow frae the forest hills;
An' Gala, too, and Teviot bright,
An' mony a stream o' playfu' speed,
Their kindred valleys a' unite
Amang the braes o' bonnie Tweed!
So, Master, may you sing against each other, you two good old anglers, like
Peter and Corydon, that sang in your golden age.
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