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"We'l rejoice with my brother _Peter_ and his friend, tell tales, or sing Ballads, or make a Catch, or find some harmless sport to content us, and pass away a little time without offence to God or man."
-- Izaak Walton, _The Compleat Angler_
Izaak Walton (1593-1683), ironmonger, biographer, and fisherman may be said to have been a man who valued the contemplative over the active life. In today's world of hustle and bustle and time clocks, there is something to be said for a man like Walton, who knows how to take it slow and easy. His masterpiece, _The Compleat Angler_ (begun 1653), is in part a practical guide to fishing. For many years, it could be found in fishermen's creels. But it is also in part a praise of the pastoral life, which contributes to its charm:
Look! under that broad _Beech-tree_, I sate down, when I was last this way a fishing, and the birds in the adjoyning Grove seemed to have a friendly contention with an Eccho, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow tree, near to the brow of that Primrose-hill; there I sate viewing the silver streams glide silently towards their center, the tempestuous Sea; yet, sometimes opposed by rugged roots, and pebble stones, which broke their waves, and turned them into foam: and sometimes I beguil'd time by viewing the harmless Lambs, some leaping securely in the cool shade, whilst others sported themselves in the chearful Sun; and saw others craving comfort from the swoln Udders of their bleating Dams. (79)
Shortly after this scene, we hear a young milkmaid sing Christopher Marlow's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," which begins: "Come live with me and be my love/ And we will all the pleasures prove..." Her Mother sings Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," which begins: "If all the world and Love were young/ And truth in every Shepherds tongue..." Yes, _The Compleat Angler_ is steeped in a vision of the pastoral. And this in turn is related to Walton's philosophy of the contemplative and fishing:
And first, I shall tell you what some have observed (and I have found it to be a real truth) that the very sitting by a Rivers side is not only the quietest and fittest place for _contemplation_, but will invite an angler to it: and this seems to maintained by the learned _Pet. du Moulin_, who (in his discussion of the fulfilling of Prophesies) observes, that when God intended to reveal any future events or high notions to his Prophets, he then carried them either to the _Deserts_, or to the _Sea-shore_, that having so separated them from amidst the press of _people_ and _business_, and the cares of the world, he might settle their mind in a quiet repose, and there make them fit for Revelation. (40)
For this reason, Walton says, ministers are forbidden to hunt but allowed to fish. Angling, it is recognized, can be a source of divine inspiration.
Some modern readers may be enchanted by some of Walton's geography, especially when he relies heavily on Aristotle, Pliny, and Lucian:
As namely of a River in _Epirus_, that puts out any lighted Torch, and kindles any Torch that was not lighted. Some Waters being drunk cause madness, some drunkenness, and some laughter to death. The River _Selarius_ in a few hours turns a rod or wand to stone: and our _Cambden_ mentions the like in _England_, and the like in _Lochmere_ in _Ireland_. There is also a river in _Arabia_, of which all the sheep that drink thereof have their wool turned into a Vermillion colour. And one of no less credit than _Aristotle_, tells us of a merry river, (the River _Elusina_) that it dances at the noise of musick... (41)
When he relies on more modern sources, his accounts may have seemed equally fantastic to contemporary readers. But they were actually fairly scientifically accurate for their day. Here he draws from Montaigne's _Essays_:
The _Cuttle-fish_ will cast a long gut out of her throat, which (like as an Angler doth his line) she sendeth forth and pulleth in again at her pleasure, according as she sees some little fish come near to her; and the _Cuttle-fish_ (being then hid in the gravel) lets the smaller fish nibble so near to her, that she may leap upon her, and then catches and devours her: and for this reason some have called this fish the _Sea-Angler_.
The only correction I would make is that it is the Sea-Angler, not the Cuttle-fish, that angles for other fish. Even when Walton is engaged in straightforward description of angling, you can find a kind of baroque elegance to his prose:
First, let your Rod be light, and very gentle, I take the best to be of two pieces, and let not your Line exceed (especially for three or four link next to the hook) I say, not exceed three or four hairs at the most, though you may fish a little stronger above in the upper part of your line: but if you can attain to angle with one hair, you shall have more rises, and catch more Fish. (105)
Perhaps it would do well to back up a bit and give a bit of background about the book itself. The first edition (by Walton) was published in 1653. It went through three more editions by Walton in 1655, 1661, and 1668 respectively. In 1676, Walton approached his friend and fellow angler, Charles Cotton to write some material on trout and grayling fishing. The fifth edition of 1676 features Charles Cotton's "Part Two". Most modern versions of _The Compleat Angler_ are the Walton-Cotton fifth edition, the most complete version.
The general format of the book is that of a dialogue. In Part I, it is between Piscator (the fisherman), his brother Peter, Venator (a hunter), Auceps (a Faulkner), and various shepherds, milkmaids, and hostesses (conveniently skilled in cleaning and dressing fish). They talk about the beauties of nature, the wonders of the elements, the virtues of their favorite sport, or the teachings of the Bible. And they frequently break out into rounds of song. Here is a verse of a song sung by Piscator:
"_Of Recreation there is none
So free as Fishing is alone;
All other pastimes do no lesse
Than mind and body both possesse:
My hand alone my work can doe,
So I can fish and study too._" (90)
Pages 190 and 191 contain an angler's song set to music.
Part II (the section by Cotton) is also in the form of a dialogue. This time, it is between Piscator, Junior (adopted son of Piscator) and Viator (the one-time hunter of the first dialogues). There are no songs or bursts of poetry, or stylized pastoral scenes with Lambs and Maidens and Shepherds. But there are some lovely descriptions of the English countryside and English rivers: "Why this Sir is called _Bently_ Brook, and is full of very good Trout and Grayling; but so encumbered with wood in many places, as is troublesome for an Angler" (250). Later, "the river _Wye_" consists of "a black water at the fountain" but "becomes a most delicate clear River, and breeds admirable Trout and Grayling" (252-253). But Piscator Junior's great love is the River _Dove_, "which divides the two Couties of _Derby_ and _Stafford_ for many Miles together" (250) and is known for "the swiftness of its current" (250).
But the primary value of the section by Cotton is its practical value to serious fishermen: It's a wealth of information about how to tie flies, what flies to use during what months of the year, and angling strategies for outwitting the craftiest of trout and grayling.
_The Compleat Angler_ belongs to a very old form of writing called Menippean satire that includes works as varied as Francois Rabelais' _Gargantua and Pantagruel_, Robert Burton's _Anatomy of Melancholy_, Jonathon Swift's _Gulliver's Travels_, and Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Northrup Frye (1957) states that Menippean satire is characterized by its "ability to handle abstract ideas and theories" (309), its use of stylized characters who are "mouthpieces of the ideas they represent" (309), and a loose structure that loans itself to digressions and discussions.
It has been said that next to the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, _The Complete Angler_ is the most frequently reprinted seventeenth century English book. Well, perhaps. But how much is it actually _read_ today? That is much harder to ascertain. Do yourself a favor. Read this charming classic of Menippean satire. Let yourself be carried away to a world of ease and contemplation. You don't have to be a fisherman to enjoy the book. But it helps.
_Addendum_: I daresy that there are several excellent editions of this classic in print. But my favorite remains the Oxford World's Classics edition (1982), with the original introduction from 1935 by John Buchan and more up-to-date notes by editor John Buxton. From them, you may learn that Vergil wasn't really buried in Rome; that Charles Cotton had a cave on his property in which he hid from creditors; that according to Albertus Magnus (1193?- 1280), a certain type of frog did not eat at all in August; and many other vital pieces of information.