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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Izaak Walton and his Compleat Angler

A self-educated man with only a few years of schooling, and an ironmonger by trade, Izaak Walton (1594-1683) read widely, developed scholarly tastes, and associated to men of learning (Britannica). Among his friends were John Donne, Charles Cotton, George Morley, Henry Wotton, to name but a few. His trade brought him a good fortune, enough to spend his last forty years of life visiting eminent clergymen and others who enjoyed fishing, compiling the biographies of people he liked, and collecting information for The Compleat Angler (wiki).

Walton lived through complicated times. It was the epoch of the English Revolution, opposing Puritans and Anglicans, Parliamentarians (the so-called Roundheads) and Royalists (known also as the Cavaliers). As for Walton, he was a staunched Anglican and Royalist, and he had to leave London during the years Cromwell was in power. He retired in the countryside, as many other Royalists did (a move summed up by his friend Cotton in The Retirement).

Two books written by Walton remained firmly in the history of British literature: Lives of John Donne, Henry Wotton, Rich'd Hooker, George Herbert, and C and The Compleat Angler ot the Contemplative Man's Recreation.

Browse a little bit through Walton's Lives: a collection of biographies of his distinguished friends, beginning with John Donne.  I'll give you here a small fragment from The Life of Dr. John Donne  and I hope you'll enjoy the elegance of the phrase:

He was now entered into the eighteenth year of his age; and at that time had betrothed himself to no religion, that might give him any other denomination than a Christian. And reason and piety had both persuaded him, that there could be no such sin as Schism, if an adherence to some visible Church were not necessary. About the nineteenth year of his age, he, being then unresolved what religion to adhere to, and considering how much it concerned his soul to choose the most orthodox, did therefore, – though his youth and health promised him a long life – to rectify all scruples that might concern that, presently lay inside all study of the Law, and of all other sciences that might give him a denomination; and began seriously to survey and consider the body of Divinity, as it was then controverted betwixt the Reformed and the Roman Church. And, as God’s blessed Spirit did then awaken him to the search, and in that industry did never forsake him – they be his own words – so he calls the same Holy Spirit to witness his protestation; that in that disquisition and search, he proceeded with humility and diffidence in himself; and by that which he took to be the safest way; namely, frequent prayers, and an indifferent affection to both parties; and indeed, Truth had too much light about her to be hid from so sharp an enquirer; and he had too much ingenuity, not to acknowledge he had found her.

Well, now if you ask me, soon enough John Donne would find his choice as a faithful member of the Church of England, and eventually he'd become the Dean of Saint Paul's.

The best known book of Walton is The Compleat Angler. He worked on that book for many years, coming back to the text to add new chapters, to change something on existent pages, to enhance the whole. It was first published in 1653, then three revised editions came during his lifetime. It is one of the most re-printed books in Britain, after the Bible and the Works of Shakespeare. Walton is in his whole entirety in this book:  a very nice guy, enthusiastic angler, enthusiastic in sharing his angling knowledge, his love for outdoors, his enjoyment of life, a book so well balanced, so elegant in the lessons he gives to the reader.

Izaak Walton and his scholar
wood engraving by Louis John Rhead, 1900
no copyright infringement intended

And actually his book (subtitled a discourse on rivers, fishponds, fish and fishing) is more than that. Consider the bitter political and religious conflicts of the epoch. This book is a plea for tolerance and moderation  (http://www.stmarysstafford.org.uk/Izaak%20Walton/Izaak_Walton.htm). For Walton, the fact that the Apostles had been fishermen led to the necessary conclusion that the waters and the fish inside belonged fully to the universe of Christianity, and angling was fundamentally a quest for the Christian ideal, in all its simplicity and life enjoyment. And as Walton was a member of the Church of England, we can say that for him The Compleat Angler actually meant The Compleat Anglican.

At this point it is good to compare a little bit Walton's Compleat Angler with Yeats' Song of Wandering Aengus: there angling was a quest for ultimate love. I think fundamentally both were engaged in the same quest: the angler's dream to find in the caught fish the essence of life.

I found on the internet a movie dedicated to the book of Walton. It is a 50 minute documentary written and narrated by James Prosek, a young American naturalist, artist, and passionate angler, who journeyed across Ireland and England in the footsteps of Walton, meditating his book and his teachings, angling on streams and ponds, making the knowledge of wonderful persons dedicated also to angling, trying to recreate the spirit of the seventeenth author in its compleateness.

The Complete Angler, TV movie, 2002
written and narrated by James Prosek
(video by wayupstream1)

The movie is divided in several chapters (separated each other by a black screen), and here is a brief synopsis (from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r2nRfnpWxw):

Chapter 1 - James leaves Connecticut for Ireland and England, catching a few trout in his home streams and musing about his youth, fishing, and some Waltonian ideals. He visits the library at Yale and examines a first edition of Walton's Compleat Angler from 1653. Then he sits for a reading of Yeat's poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus, by Harold Bloom.

Chapter 2 - James goes to Ireland to experience the earliest form of fly-fishing, dapping live mayflies impaled on fine-wire hooks for brown trout on the lakes of the Connemara region. He visits with a boy who collects and sells live mayflies to the fishermen, and salmon fishes along the Eriff River.

Chapter 3 - James fishes a tributary of the Thames in London that Walton fished three hundred and fifty years before, the River Lea. Walton was forced out of London during the English Civil War and returned to the pastoral beauty of his homeland in Derbyshire and the beautiful River Dove in the Peak District.

Chapter 4 - James visits the
fishing temple on the River Dove, which Charles Cotton (considered the father of modern fly-fishing) built in honor of his friend Izaak Walton.

Chapter 5 - James fishes with Sir John Swire, an upper-class Englishman who talks about his love of fishing and of Izaak Walton's ideals and life philosophy.

Chapter 6 - James visits Victoria Wakefield who helped him secure fishing on the renowned chalk streams, the Test and Itchen in Hampshire. She introduces him to Roger Harrison, who owns a beautiful stretch of water on the Itchen with lots of wild trout. There, James encounters a milkmaiden.

Final Chapter - James visits Izaak Walton's grave in a chapel in Winchester Cathedral, and discusses the last years of his life. Then he sings a song in a meadow by the river and returns to the fishing at the pond near his home in Connecticut.

Charles Cotton's Fishing House on the banks of Dove (built 1674)
a secular shrine to all (particularly game) anglers
photo by neil gibbs, 2006
source: http://geograph.org.uk
no copyright infringement intended

(A Life in Books)



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