Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Swift, Gulliver’s Travels




Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler

“Sweetness and light” may be a catch phrase used in our time only sarcastically, but it applies with the greatest accuracy to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. Aestheticians have quarreled for years over the question “Can a thoroughly bad man write thoroughly good books?” The reason, of course, is that most writers are not very nice and the number who owe their artistic preeminence to their personal morality is very small indeed. Izaak Walton above all other writers in English owes his enormous popularity to his virtues as a man, and these virtues are what condition his style and give his work its fundamental meaning.

Millions have read Walton with joy who have never caught a fish since childhood, if at all. Indeed, he is not a terribly good guide to the art of fishing, and in America at least, most of the kinds of fish he talks about are left to small boys. The second half of The Compleat Angler was added in late editions and written by Charles Cotton as a guide to trout fishing in rough water. Those who want to know how to catch fish can learn most from Cotton’s additions. In fact, many people on first acquaintance skim through the main body of the book in considerable puzzlement and much prefer the later part. Then, as they keep the book about, and idle through it in the winter months, Izaak Walton overtakes them and captivates them for life.

We do not read The Compleat Angler for the fish, or for instruction in how to catch them. There are hundreds of more efficient books for such purposes, whether manuals or ichthyologies. We read Izaak Walton for a special quality of soul. Other books, mostly religious or mystical treatises, may describe such a quality and may even provide the reader with onerous instructions on how to obtain it. Walton simply embodies it unaware, and his example is possibly the most convincing argument that this is the only way it can be embodied.

It would be easy to claim that Izaak Walton is the most Chinese of all Western writers — he and his companions wandering by flowing waters and reciting poems to each other. We know nothing of Lao Tse, or even if he existed. The book that goes by his name is certainly a compilation made over a long period of time; but it has a recurrent symbolism which, although extremely simple, is a revelation of a definite personality. Whoever wrote the little psalms of the Tao Te Ching believed that the long calm regard of moving water was one of the highest forms of prayer.

Westerners miss the point of the later Taoist saint who fished with a straight pin and a single filament of silk. It’s not that he did not catch fish, but that he caught them with ease, because he was so perfectly attuned to the rhythms of water and of life. We read Izaak Walton for his tone, for his perfect attunement to the quiet streams and flowered meadows and bosky hills of the Thames valley long ago.

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, in fact all the writers of Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy except Thomas Dekker, portray life in the English countryside as robust and comic enough but also as harsh, brutal, and unclean, for so they saw it. Not Walton. His landscapes are enameled like the meadows about the feet of Medieval saints. His innkeepers are both gentle and jovial. His barmaids are as wholesome as the ale they serve.

What a luminous world it is — delicious fish, twenty inches long, caught in clear, sweet streams that now are gone or flow underground, laden with filth. England was unspoiled and unpolluted then, but the landscape of The Compleat Angler is so clean and bright because it is bathed in a light that comes from a lucid heart.

So he saw life, and he would have pictured it thus whatever he had written about. Had his subject been the most squalid modern slums of London and his judgments of the life there an arraignment and denunciation of their evils, his conclusion surely would have been “There springs the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Many sports are actually forms of contemplative activity. Fishing in quiet waters is especially so. Countless men who would burst out laughing if presented with a popular vulgarization of Zen Buddhism, and who would certainly find it utterly incomprehensible, practice the contemplative life by flowing water, rod in hand, at least for a few days each year. As the great mystics have said, they too know it is the illumination of these few days that gives meaning to the rest of their lives.

The Compleat Angler has often been compared to the Idylls of Theocritus. The ancient Greek may have written great poetry, but his pastorals are not meant to convince. Nobody has ever supposed that Sicilian shepherds and shepherdesses talked like that, however golden the age in which they lived. The Idylls are written literature; the diction is a courtly literary convention. The Compleat Angler is a country idyll made of talk. The rhythms of speech and turns of thought, however quaint to us three hundred and more years away, are completely convincing. We believe that this is the way gentlemen talked on an outing in those days — learned, peaceable gentlemen in a time of troubles, whose speech had been formed by the gentler passages of the Book of Common Prayer: “Hear what comfortable words . . .”

It has been said of Izaak Walton that he was scarcely a literary man and that his style is a perfect example of complete naïveté. Maybe, although there is manuscript evidence to the contrary. But it is this quality that the greatest literary men have sought in pain and conflict and countless revisions in sleepless nights. Like the transparent narratives of those Chinese novels which do not seem to be written at all, Izaak Walton’s style is completely lucid. Everything is there that should be there. Nothing is obscure or troubled. Once we have accepted the archaic diction, nothing stands between us and the subject — except the personality of Izaak Walton, and that is as transparent as crystal, with an innate clarity achieved without effort. This may be called naïveté, but a better word is innocence.

It may sound outrageous to say that Izaak Walton wrote one of the Great Books — and that about catching fish — because he was a saint, because of an abiding sweetness of temper, but so it is. It is important to realize that he is not alone in English literature. He is in fact an unusual embodiment of a quietly powerful tradition, that of the contemplative layman — Saint Thomas More, Nicholas Ferrer, William Law, Gilbert White. After the eighteenth century, this type is more commonly found in the sciences than in religion. And like Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne, The Compleat Angler is in a sense a scientific work, an outstanding example of the piety of science.

Kant, following Ptolemy, contemplated the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Izaak Walton contemplated fish and flowing water, the streams and banks of the beautiful landscape that is now deep in the slums of greater London. He was more the contemplative because he was the more unaware and the more modest in his methods.



Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

The Pilgrim’s Progress was one of the precious possessions of my middle childhood. When but in skirts, I wrote an imitation of it. Perhaps even that early it was confused in my mind with the Oz books, the I.W.W. Manifesto, the life of a family friend named Debs, and H.G. Wells’s Research Magnificent. As for so many millions before me, it was a character-building book. I read it to my daughters when they each attained the age of eight or nine — and had not opened it since.

When I picked up my gold-stamped, gold-edged, embossed, Victorian copy with the gracious illustrations by Thomas Dalziel, I was amazed — as the Pilgrim, Christian, was so often by the wonders he encountered — at the limpid beauty of Bunyan’s style. Few things in the language compare with its modestly exerted power. In the nineteenth century, this quality passes from the art of literature to the literature of science and reaches its culmination in the crystalline, utterly unself-conscious prose of the physicist Clerk Maxwell. It is the reflection of greatness of soul.

Of a book like Apuleius’s The Golden Ass we debate, “Is this story of a life of adventure an allegory?” Bunyan wrote an allegory which is a true story of the adventures of life. His characters, personifications of virtues and vice, are living beings because he himself never thought of himself as living anywhere else but in a vast moral allegory. All men to him were named names like PraiseGod Barebones and Madefree Bytruth Odhner — and so in fact they are.

Life may not be as simple as Ben Jonson’s Theater of Humours with characters like the Sanguine Man, the Choleric Man, the Melancholic Man, and so on. Life is infinitely more complex. Nonetheless, we live and move and have our being in an ever-shifting dynamic field of moral forces. We are all Christian staggering under the burden of our own consequences; freed, if we are freed, by sacrifice; marching steadfastly through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the Dark Night of the Soul, if we do get through it, looking back upon life from the Delectable Mountain, which overlooks, in the other direction, the river in which all consequence is washed away.

Bunyan had an extraordinary gift, like second sight, to see abstractions as beings moving. After all, that is what abstractions were in the first place. He saw the situations of the soul as landscapes, palaces, dungeons, and cities, all perfectly concrete, rising about him on his own path through life. The descriptive passages in The Pilgrim’s Progress have often been referred to the English countryside or even to the environs of his native Bedfordshire. Read with care, they turn out to be almost without exception Biblical. Like so many entranced soldiers of Cromwell, Bunyan did not live in England’s green and pleasant land but marched a lifetime through the deserts of Sinai, and the Holy Land of Israel, to Jerusalem.

Bunyan’s vision of life was seen from the diametrically opposite point of view from William Blake’s outlook, but it was the same vision and the same life. It is the same too as Saint Augustine’s. Bunyan was, as it were, the Bishop of Hippo reincarnated in an English village, shorn of cope and miter, pomp and circumstance, and the splendors of the rhetoric of the Latin decadence. I was moved to reread some of Augustine: not The City of God and The Confessions but the sermons on the Psalms, the commentary on Job and the controversies with the men in his day who believed that grace could be merited and man could be saved by good works. It is difficult to believe that Bunyan did not write The Pilgrim’s Progress with the works of Augustine at his elbow. Of course he had scarcely so much as heard of him.

Here lies the fault of Bunyan’s great book. All these sharply realized characters whom Christian meets in the way of life are devoid of any outgoing ethical activism and of the love of man that finds expression in dedication to simple good. Amongst hundreds of personifications, more real in seeming than most persons of realistic fiction, no girl named Charity plays a significant role. Bunyan, like Augustine, says only few out of many, even of those who are called, are saved, and never by the merit of acts of love.

This is certainly one view of life. Shorn of theology and supernatural sanction, it is still arguable, but it is remote indeed to our age, which, if it believes in salvation of any sort, believes that it comes through the assumption of unlimited liability, person for person. When Christian has won through, he spends his time in the land of spiritual peace — the Delectable Mountains, the Enchanted Ground, the Country of Beulah — arguing theology with his companion Hopeful; an indication of what Bunyan thought was the best way to spend your time when salvation was in sight. This unfortunate pre-climax spoils the book for many modern people. It seems a cold, hard view of life, which has produced many great generals and despots but few saints. It makes so little allowance for the frailty of humankind that it is itself more frail than the philosophy of the average man.

The final passages — the passing of the River of Death, the entrance into the Celestial City — have a simple grandeur, a kind of proletarian glory of a sort not to be found elsewhere. Then too, the progress of Christian is only one story. The second book is concerned with the spiritual journey of the wife and children he had deserted for Heaven. It lacks the dramatic immediacy and impetuous delivery of Christian’s story; it is not as great a work of art; but it is altogether more gentle and humane and somewhat more wise.

Christiana’s constant companion is Mercy, the one attribute of God in the theology of Saint Augustine that is not unlimited. So too in Bunyan’s book she accompanies, observes, and weeps, but she seldom acts, and only once decisively — when she rejects Brisk’s offer of marriage. Charity plays no effective role in the story as a personification, but charity is an effective virtue in the soul of Christiana. As she goes through the Valley of the Shadow of Death accompanied by her children and a strong protector, Mercy, she says, “Poor Christian, he went this way alone and at night.” And she says it of a husband who had deserted her at the call of Scripture. Christian was unhappy in the Valley of Humiliation. For Christiana it was beautiful with lilies.

For a world that mostly believes none of the doctrines on which Christian staked his soul, his little book is still a vision of life. It isn’t all of life, but it is a great deal of it, and they are lucky who can see even that much. For all of its exteriority it is the plot of the interior life — a dramatic incarnation, into what seems like a bustling realism, of the hidden story of the way of perfection, the dark night of the soul, the cloud of unknowing of the great mystics.



Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

The critical literature on Gulliver’s Travels is immense, contradictory, and exhausting. It is as though Swift had written an additional “Voyage to the Land of Pihsralohcs,” a land governed by the iron rule of Publish or Die. In all this vast mass of paper to which beautiful trees have been sacrificed, there is scarcely a mention of the greatest mystery attending Gulliver’s Travels. Why has it been for over two hundred years one of the most popular of all children’s books? If the critics are right, especially about the fourth book, it is an obscene and immoral rejection of the weak but striving, failing but trying, human race, the work of a psychotic who hated all men, especially women, who was impotent, paranoid, and fixed in a clinging and cloying anal eroticism. This, it would seem, is reading matter for adults only. Even if the critics are wrong, the fact that they can make such deductions would make the book dangerous, or incomprehensible, or both, to children. Yet children love it, quite innocently, and see nothing bad or even nasty about it. So likewise do very common people. A good measure of this was the immense popularity amongst peasants and simple workers of the classic Russian motion picture made of Gulliver’s Travels long years ago.

On his voyage to the island of Balnibarbi and the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver learned, long before they were ever seen by real astronomers, that Mars had two moons. Swift describes them with considerable accuracy. This has fascinated many a science fiction writer. There are stories which describe Swift’s visit to Mars or the Martians’ visit to him, but the best is one based on the hypothesis that Swift himself was a Martian — an engineer who had planned to put two large satellites in orbit about Mars (the moons were not discovered until later because they were not there), but had been swept away in his spaceship, and forced to land on Earth. The science fiction writers are sounder critics than the scholars. Like the children who love Gulliver’s Travels, Swift is an Outsider, one of the first and greatest. He was horrified by the condition of humanity and dumbfounded that he was a human being.

Superficially there is nothing extraordinary about the satire of Gulliver’s Travels. Swift uses the standard classical formula that goes back to Aristophanes, Menander, and Plautus, and survives to this day in all plays based on the Italian Comedy. In his own day, in Molière, or Aphra Behn, or the disciples of Ben Jonson, the formula dominated the popular stage. Each character in the classic comedy is assigned one of the vices or follies of mankind and acts out its consequences in absurdities or incongruities which follow logically from a given situation. What Swift did was simply use whole peoples, instead of individuals, as personifications. Starting with an assumption, men six inches or sixty feet high, the roles of horses and humans reversed, literal physical immortality, he deduced all the consequences he could think of, with relentless logic and realism, from an initial absurdity. But the absurdity is the only vesture of a vice, or folly, or major defect of ordinary people. The Lilliputians are petty; the Brobdingnagians are gross, the Struldbruggs are senile, the Houyhnhnms are endowed only with rationality, the Yahoos lack it. Taken altogether the nations of Gulliver’s Travels makes up a well-rounded human character — seen from the outside.

So children, like Martians, see the adult world. Who did not dream as a child that some day, after he was grown up, he would meet the real adults, so unlike those he saw about him — rational, just, and large of vision — who keep the world from collapse. Somewhere they must exist, a little conspiratorial committee of the sane in ice caves in Tibet or the undersea palaces in Atlantis or The Land of Oz. Certainly the world a child sees about him, and judges by the simple values of innocence, or the equally simple ones he has been taught — “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” — could not endure overnight unless somewhere the responsibles were keeping it going. The perspective of Swift is no different. His “savage indignation” is just outraged innocence. The point of view assumed by all satirists with him was not an assumption or a pose; it was congenital and incorrigible.

It is his innocence that distinguishes Swift from Franz Kafka and those who have come after him in the Theater of the Absurd or the novels of the blackest Black Comedy. The squeamish and sheltered academicians of an older generation, like the critics of earlier times from Sam Johnson on, have been outraged and nauseated by the fourth voyage. In our day it seems mild indeed. The Houyhnhnms, except for their rationalism, differ little from horses. In fact, the only difference is that they can take care of themselves at the standard of living of rather pampered race horses. The conclusion that this was in fact the status of the philosophers of the Enlightenment is easily drawn. As for the terrible Yahoos, they behave pretty much like human beings unable to think up excuses for their behavior. Neither species is evil. Swift was himself a man of the first half of the eighteenth century in this — or an Outsider. He did not know what evil was. Nowhere does he give any indication of comprehending that human beings of the greatest intelligence can deliberately live out a rationally organized evil or that whole societies can operate in decency and order for the most vicious ends. To Swift, as to Aristophanes, war, treachery, exploitation are follies. Vice may be disgusting, but it is never reasonable. So Swift is outside the human condition in a way that Choderlos de Laclos, or Balzac, or Proust are not. This is innocence.

It is his innocence that endears Swift to children. As he logically draws out the details of Lilliputian or Houyhnhnm behavior, he is inexhaustibly playful; he is never whimsical. Uncorrupted children loathe whimsy because it is one of the final manifestations of corruption. Gulliver’s Travels is at the opposite esthetic pole to Winnie the Pooh.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

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Other “Classics Revisited” essays