Mr. Lowell on Izaak Walton
THIS very beautiful limited edition of Walton’s Complete Angler 1 clothes in a fit dress one of the unique works of our literature which has made good its title to permanence, and is, indeed, cherished by its lovers with a peculiar affection. Type and page are all that can be desired even in an édition de luxe, and there are a great number of illustrations appropriate to the text, including several portraits. The work is introduced by an editorial essay by Mr. Lowell, and this makes it most noticeable; fora critical appreciation of Walton from so fine a hand, at once sympathetic and just, is the best good fortune both for the author and his readers, and is the ornament most to be desired in such a book. Mr. Lowell’s essay is biographical in form, such as an editor would naturally write ; it contains the facts of the author’s life, a discussion of the vexed points in his career and in his literary work, an account by the way of some of his friends, and a personal and critical characterization. The whole is deftly handled: facts alternate with thought, pages of necessary but dry information with other pages of quiet reflection, glimpses of the time and persons with outlooks on the country scene; and so the essay ends with having given rare pleasure.
The one purpose which Mr. Lowell has kept in mind is apparently to render Walton’s personality and literary charm. He does this the more effectively by not making too great claims. He does not assert the genius, or the style, or the literary value of his author as grounds of admiration; on the contrary, Walton does not seem to him to be entitled to his fame because of any reason of this sort. He was a delightful character, with many qualities to give pleasure, and he charged his writings with this personality so simply and immediately that in his books we love the man. This is his originality in literature, and by it he lives. Mr. Lowell’s brief runs to this effect; and in accordance with it he takes pains to show Walton in his own dress and habits, and to make sensible the charm of his presence. He begins by reminding us of the quietude of Walton’s life, a by-path in that time of discord, and of the inwardness of his spirit, wedded as it was to contemplative moods. He follows him through his uneventful days until he withdrew from business into that retirement which was his natural home. He takes notice of his liking for talk and his appreciation of men, of the amiable, mild-mannered friendships for which Walton had a genius, of his simple enjoyment of nature. He touches upon his verses very lightly, only to illustrate the value they may have had in giving to his prose measure and sweetness of cadence, or to show the sincerity of his regard for Donne evinced in a funeral elegy. So even is the flow of Mr. Lowell’s thought and narrative that one hardly feels the successive touches, but is surprised to find Walton almost at once a man already known and familiar. It is not unnatural that he should seem elderly, with a character developed from within so wholly without effort that it appears the mere growth of the qualities with which he was born little affected by the exterior chances of life. Simplicity belongs to such a fortunate temperament, but there is something more than the charm of simplicity in him ; and the literary talent which he possessed by nature wins by some quality other than plainness. He enjoyed his life, and his writings convey to us the pleasure he took in it, not as if he had set it forth for us and -called attention to it, but as if we had overheard his confidences to himself. Few authors have so entirely succeeded in making their literary utterance at one with their natural speech ; one would say that he writes less to please than because he is himself pleased, and feels the wish to express something intimate from his own life. He had great respect or real affection for some men whom he had known, and he writes their lives as one would write a letter on the death of a valued friend, with a familiar touch, a direct and homely detail, a feeling appreciative of excellence in character and mind ; or he is delighted with a pleasant morning, with the little sights and sounds of nature, the common things of sun and air and field, and he writes a chapter to express his joy and to thank God for it. This immediacy of life in his literary work is the secret of Walton, the prime trait of his books, looked at from a critical point of view ; and the peacefulness, the sincerity, and what Mr. Lowell calls the “ innocency ” of this life clothe it with charm.
In addition to all this there is the cheerfulness and coinpanionableness of Walton, his rambling genius, his keen observation, his wholesome nature, of which the critic also takes due notice, while reminding us how valuable such comradeship is for those portions of our days, too often only intervals, when we have leisure to attend to the daily beauty of existence and to surrender ourselves to it, and to find in the familiar and habitual that undeparting presence which ennobles and delights us, illuminating without disturbing the spirit. This poetical suggestion is never far off in Walton, but is implicit in his way of taking life. He does not excite the mind, as the poet does, with too intense a feeling of the beautiful, but he soothes it, or, rather, encourages us to hold the tenor of our way with temperate happiness. This mood of his falls in with the taste, and indeed the capacity, of many among those of real poetic susceptibility, yet not of the make that can long suffer the fervors of stronger emotions and intenser thought. It is one secret of his hold on those men whose sympathies move with most pleasure to themselves in this level of feeling. But over and above all, his out-door quality, his lack of literary pretension, and his habit of looking a man in the face are the strongest influences that keep his books alive for the class to which they specially appeal.
It is unnecessary to say that Mr. Lowell has mingled with the lines of this portrait something of himself, and in drawing it has occasionally stopped to say a word of his own upon a variety of topics naturally arising in connection with the subject. A word here upon the publicity of the present days, remarks upon the character of elegies in general, reflections on style, on what gives permanence to literature, and on other matters, diversify the interest of his essay, and bring the reader into immediate contact with himself. It results from this that the reader not only obtains a truthful and living portrait of Walton, full of intelligence and sympathy with his shy and withdrawn genius and touched with a poet’s appreciation of a peculiarly gentle and open nature, but together with this he sees Walton in the light of that criticism which takes proportion and justice from the widest acquaintance with literature in its whole compass.
- The Complete Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation of Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton. With an Introduction by JAMES RusSELL LOWELL. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1889.↩