*The Compleat Angler, by Izaak Walton, 1653
The Compleat Angler,
by Izaak Walton, 1653; revised editions 1655 and later The Complete Angler by Izaak Walton (1593–1683) is one of the most widely published books in the English language, having appeared in several hundred editions since the author’s death. It was first published in 1653 after Walton had already published biographies of John Donne (1640) and Sir Henry Wotton (1651) and before he wrote his lives of Richard Hooker (1665), George Herbert (1670), and Robert Sanderson (1678).
Later, he invited his friend, Charles Cotton, to write a continuation, which appeared in 1676.
Ostensibly a book on the sport of fishing, The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing Not Unworthy the Perusal of Most Anglers is also a long essay which relates angling to literature and philosophy. Its polished artistry, achieved through numerous revisions, pays high tribute to the ideal of the English literary pastoral tradition in its evocation of personality and landscape.
Written and published during one of the most socially, religiously, and politically traumatic periods in British history, the book reflects an ideal world from which all the evils attendant to the human condition have been purged. As Jonquil Bevan (1988) has suggested, the book is in part a royalist’s “reaction to the exile and imprisonment of his friends,” many of whom had been ravaged by the violent political and religious sectarianism of the times.
The Compleat Angler is a long dialogue involving Piscator (an angler), Venator (a hunter), and Auceps (a falconer) in an area a few miles north of London. Much of the text deals with angling: the kinds of fish available (he lists about 20, ranging from minnow and carp to trout and salmon), their locations, their habits, and the best methods and baits for catching them. The evidence of Walton’s extensive reading is everywhere apparent in the text as he cites over 60 writers and works from classical times to the Renaissance.
Much of the essay’s charm derives from the simple, straightforward way he describes the mechanics of angling and the innocent pleasures derived from it. Angling is an art much like poetry, Piscator tells Venator. People inclined to either must be born with inclinations to it: “He that hopes to be a good Angler must not only bring an inquiring, searching, observing wit; but he must bring a large measure of hope and patience, and a love and propensity to the Art itself; but having once got and practis’d it, then doubt not but what Angling will prove to be so pleasant, that it will prove to be like Virtue, a reward to itself.” Typical of Walton’s method is the section on the trout in Chapter 4: “The trout is a fish highly valued both in this and foreign nations; he may be justly said (as the old poet said of wine, and we English say of venison) to be a generous fish: a fish that is so like the buck that he also has his seasons, for it is observed that he goes in and out of season with the stag and buck…and he may justly contend with all fresh-water fish, as the mullet may with all sea-fish for precedency and daintiness of taste, and that being in right season, the most dainty palates have allowed presidency to him.” He goes on to describe the kinds and habitats of the trout. In Chapter 5 he gives further directions for fishing for trout and how to make artificial minnows and flies for lures.
But The Compleat Angler is more than just a fishing manual. It is a book that celebrates the wholesomeness of creation and the rural life in which a simple pleasure such as angling can heal the body, cleanse the mind, and refresh the spirit. As Venator says at the end of the book: “So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the Power, and Wisdom, and Providence of Almighty God, I will walk the Meadows by some gliding Stream, and there contemplate the Lillies [sic] that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him.”
Walton’s book thus takes its place in the tradition of the literature of retirement so prominent in the 17th century.
Walton’s delightful treatment of fishing as sport, recreation, and spiritual refreshment and its smooth, flowing, and engaging style make the book a classic. Overarching The Compleat Angler is his belief that the traditional in state, church, society, and culture, as symbolized in the art of angling, are being overthrown by the religious fanatics who have taken control of England.
The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing Not Unworthy the Perusal of Most Anglers, 1653; revised editions, 1655, 1661; in The Universal Angler, with Charles Cotton, 1676; many subsequent editions, including those edited by Richard Le Gallienne, 1897, John Buxton, 1982, and Jonquil Bevan, 1983
Bevan, Jonquil, Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler: The Art of Recreation, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
Bottrall, Margaret Smith, Izaak Walton, London and New York: Longman Green, 1955
Coon, A.M., The Life of Izaak Walton (dissertation), Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1938
Cooper, John, The Art of the Compleat Angler, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1968
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