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BIOGRAPHY in these communicative days has become so voluminous that it might seem calculated rather for the ninefold vitality of another domestic animal than for the less lavish allotment of man. Only such renewed leases of life could justify the writing or suffice for the reading of these too often supererogatory confidences. Only a man like the great Julius, who new-moulded the world and stamped his effigy on the coinage of political thought still current, has a right to so much of our curiosity as we are now expected to put at the service of an average general or bishop. “Nothing human is foreign to me” was said long ago, chiefly by the Latin Grammar, and has been received as the pit and gallery receive a moral sentiment which does not inconvenience themselves, but which they think likely to give the boxes an uneasy qualm. But biography has found out a process by which what is human may be so thrust upon us as to become inhuman, and one is often tempted to wish that a great deal of it might not only be made foreign to
1 This paper was originally printed as an introduction to an edition of Walton's Angler, edited by Mr. John Bartlett, and published in 1889 by Messrs. Little, Brown & Co., through whose cour tesy it is included in this collection.
us, but firmly kept so. Plutarch, a man of the most many-sided moral and intellectual interests, had a truer sense of proportion, and tempers his amiable discursiveness with an eye to his neighbor's dial. And in his case the very names of his heroes are mostly so trumpet-like as both to waken attention and to warrant it, ushering in the bearers of them like that flourish on the Elizabethan stage which told that a king was coming. How should Brown or Smith or any other dingy monosyllable of Saxon indistinction compete for conjuration with Pelopidas or Timoleon? Even within living memory Napoleon had a prodigious purchase in his name alone, and prettily confirmed the theory of Mr. Shandy.
The modern biographer has become so indiscriminate, so unconscious of the relative importance of a single life to the Universe, so careless of the just limits whether of human interest or endurance, so communistic in assuming that all men are entitled to an equal share of what little time there is left in the world, that many a worthy, whom a paragraph from the right pen might have immmortalized, is suffocated in the trackless swamps of two octavos. Meditating over these grievances with the near prospect of a biography to write, I am inclined to apply what was said of States to men also, and call him happiest who has left fewest materials for history. It is at least doubtful whether gossip gain body by bottling. In these chattering days when nobody who really is nobody can stir forth without the volunteer accompaniment of a
brass band, when there is a certificated eye at every keyhole, and when the Public Informer has become so essential a minister to the general comfort that the world cannot go about its business of a morning till its intellectual appetite is appeased with the latest doings and sayings of John Doe and Richard Roe, there is healing in the gentlemanlike reserves of the past, a benign sense of seclusion, a comfort such as loved hands bring to fevered brows, in the thought of one who, like Walton, has been safe for two hundred years in the impregnable stronghold of the grave.
Malice domestic, treason, interviews, nothing can touch him further. The sanctities of his life, at least, cannot be hawked about the streets or capitalized in posters as a whet to the latest edition of the Peeping Tom. If it be the triumph of an historian to make the great highways of the olden time populous and noisy, or even vulgar, with their old life again, it is nevertheless a consolation that we may still find by-paths there, dumb as those through a pine forest, sacred to meditation and to grateful thoughts.
Such a by-path is the life of Walton. Though it lead us through nearly a hundred years of history, many of them stormy with civil or anxious with foreign war, the clamor of events is seldom importunate, and the petulant drums are muffled with a dreamy remoteness. So far as he himself could shape its course, it leads us under the shadow of honeysuckle hedges, or along the rushy banks of silence-loving streams, or through the claustral hush of cathedral closes, or where the shadow of the vil
lage church-tower creeps round its dial of green graves below, or to the company of thoughtful and godly men. He realized the maxim which Voltaire preached, but so assiduously avoided practising, bene vixit qui bene latuit. He did his best to fulfil v the apostle's injunction in studying to be quiet.
Whether such fugitive and cloistered virtue as his come within the sweep of Milton's gravely cadenced lash or not, whether a man do not owe himself more to the distasteful publicity of active citizenship than to the petting of his own private tastes or talents, as Walton thought it right and found it sweet to do, may be a question. There can be none that the contemplation of such a life both soothes and charms, and we sigh to think that the like of it is possible no longer. Where now would the fugitive from the espials of our modern life find a sanctuary which telegraph or telephone had not deflowered ? I do not mean that Walton was an idle man, who, as time was given him for nothing, thought that he might part with it for nothing too. If he had been, I should not be writing this. He left behind him two books, each a masterpiece in its own simple and sincere way, and only the contemplative leisure of a life like his could have secreted the precious qualities that assure them against decay.
But Walton's life touches the imagination at more points than this of its quietude and inwardness. It
opens many windows to the fancy. Its opportunities were as remarkable as its length. Twentytwo years old when Shakespeare died, he lived long enough to have read Dryden's “Absalom and
Achitophel.” He had known Ben Jonson and Chillingworth and Drayton and Fuller; he had exchanged gossip with Antony à Wood; he was the friend of Donne and Wotton and King; he had seen George Herbert; and how many more sons of Memory must he not have known or seen in all those years so populous with men justly famous! Of the outward husk of this life of his we know comfortably little, but of the kernel much, and that chiefly from such unconscious glimpses as he himself has given us.
Isaac, or (as he preferred to spell the name) Izaak, Walton was born at Stafford, on the 9th of August, 1593, of a family in the rank of substantial yeomen long established in Staffordshire. Of his mother not even the name is known, and of his father we know only that his baptismal name was Jervis, and that he was buried on the 11th of February, 1596–97.
Surely the short and simple annals of the poor have been seldom more laconic than this. Sir Harris Nicolas, author of the first trustworthy Life of Walton, yielding for once to the biographer's weakness for appearances, says that he "received a good, though not, strictly speaking, classical education.” Considering that absolutely nothing is known of Walton's schooling, the concession to historical conscientiousness made in the parenthetic “strictly speaking” is amusing. We have the witness of documents in Walton's own handwriting that he could never have been taught even the rudiments of Latin; for he spells the third person singular of the perfect tense of