Letters To Dead Authors LETTER--To Master Isaak Walton byLang, Andrew
Father Isaac,--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
How often, studying in thy book, have I hummed to myself that of
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 thy 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 could 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 this be?
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, 'tis 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 Tweedside, 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! winding 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 withered within.
Or perhaps thou wilt better love,
The lanesome Tala and the Lyne,
And Manor 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.