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Letters To Dead Authors
LETTER--To Master Isaak Walton
by Lang, 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 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 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.

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