In 1859, the educational publication, The R. I. Schoolmaster, introduced Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, in terms by which he is still popularly imagined today:
‘Few men’s lives present so perfect a picture of quiet contentment, as does Izaak Walton’s. Living during the stormiest, and the gayest periods of modern times in England he yet allowed his serene mind neither to be ruffled by commotion, nor to be intoxicated with pleasure.’
It is certainly true that Walton’s long life coincided with some of England’s most tumultuous years, from the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 50s to the restoration of Charles II. Walton was born in Stafford in 1593 in the reign of Elizabeth I and died ninety years later, near the end of Charles II’s premiership.
At some point in his teenage years he relocated to London, starting work as a linen draper. He maintained this urban and mercantile existence until 1644 when, after the Royalist’s rout at the Battle of Marston Moor, he moved to Shallowford in the county of his upbringing, Staffordshire. It was here, in 1653, that he wrote the first edition of his classic work, The Compleat Angler.
Ostensibly a practical manual on fishing, this book dedicated chapters to different fish and the techniques necessary for catching them. Walton, in his opening ‘Epistle to the Reader’, pre-empts criticisms as to the practical use of such a work, writing:
‘Now for the Art of catching fish, that is to say, How to make a man that was none to be an Angler by a book, he that undertakes it shall undertake a harder task than Mr. Hales, a most valiant and excellent fencer, who, in a printed book called A Private School of Defence undertook to teach that art or science, and was laughed at for his labour’.
As J. H. Oliver pointed out in 1947, this had historical precedent. The Compleat Angler was written in a fertile time for manuals and treatises; other examples being Peacham’s Compleat Gentleman (1622) and Sir Dudley Digges’ Compleat Ambassador (1655). What appears to set Walton’s work apart from these other texts – all but forgotten outside of scholarship – is its georgic, lyrical quality. This is detected later in the ‘Epistle’ when after listing practical concerns as to his book’s use, Walton concludes by wishing his audience ‘a rainy evening to read this following Discourse; and that if he be an honest Angler, the east wind may never blow when he goes a-fishing.’
This passage prefaces the fey opening chapter, ‘The First Day’ in which we are introduced to an angler; Piscator, a hunter; Venator and a falconer; Auceps. This unlikely trio, having met one another heading north from Tottenham to indulge in their respective pursuits, soon begin ‘commending his Recreation’ in a ‘Conference’. This narrative conceit is surely the work’s chief success; the ensuing quasi-paragone debate involves the reader in Walton’s characters and subject matter via frequent pastoral and philosophical explorations that never settle on the technical for too long.
Walton, a staunch Royalist, was not totally aligned to his Victorian reimagining as a man who turned his back to the world in the pursuit of pastoral tranquillity. Indeed, he ran considerable risks for his cause. In the aftermath of the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Walton acted as a courier, transporting some of the crown jewels to London for shipment to the exiled Charles II. Thus, his move to Staffordshire was part of a wider cultural shift whereby Anglican clergy and Royalist gentlemen sought solace in the countryside, away from the Puritanical commercial centres of southern and eastern England. Therefore, as John Cooper argues in The Art of the Compleat Angler, the customary portrait of ‘old Father Izaac’ as living in blissful ignorance in the shires is an incorrect one. His fraternity with clergymen came not merely from a meditative predisposition, but from his recognising in them the same ostracization from Commonwealth England suffered by him. Therefore, the credence Walton gave to quiet country recreation was a direct response to the political situation in England and not, as some would claim, a wilful neglection of it.
The afterlife of Walton’s The Compleat Angler began immediately after its initial publication in 1653. Walton kept adding to the ever-expanding volume, so that by 1676 it was in its fifth edition and had grown from thirteen to twenty-one chapters. Barely out of print since its initial release, it is one of the most published English language works after Shakespeare and the Bible. This book’s scholarly relevance lies in its oblique addressing of contemporary tumult through inventive narrative devices and as a formative expression of the pastoral in the English canon. That it has enjoyed such lasting popularity must, however, result from the work’s gentle philosophy and the applicability to our own lives of Walton’s passion for and solace in fishing as an antidote to a troubled world.
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