"What raises The Compleat Angler far above a mere manual or series of jolly outings is Walton's profound understanding of natural history and the particular ecosystems fundamental to angling. In his awareness of the environment, he was centuries ahead of his time...One to dip into rather than devour at one sitting, this book is infused throughout with good fun and good sense."Simon Redfern, Independent on Sunday
The Compleat Anglerby Izaak Walton
First published in 1653, this literary and nature classic was created by a Londoner with a passion for rustic life. As satisfying a primer on fishing as any angler could wish, it celebrates the art and spirit of
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"Breathes the very spirit of innocence, purity, and simplicity of heart . . . it would sweeten a man's temper at any time to read it." — Charles Lamb
First published in 1653, this literary and nature classic was created by a Londoner with a passion for rustic life. As satisfying a primer on fishing as any angler could wish, it celebrates the art and spirit of fishing with verse, song and folklore, moral reflections, and timeless wisdom. Cast in the form of a dialogue between the veteran angler Piscator and his pupil Viator, it both informs and delights with an ingenious exploration of fishing's subtle intricacies and the pleasures of the natural world.
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YOU are well overtaken, Gentlemen: a good morning to you both: I have stretched my legs up Tottenham Hill to overtake you, hoping your business may occasion you towards Ware, whither I am going this fine, fresh May morning.
VENATOR. Sir, I, for my part, shall almost answer your hopes; for my purpose is to drink my morning's draught at the Thatched House in Hoddesden; and I think not to rest till I come thither, where I have appointed a friend or two to meet me: but for this gentleman that you see with me, I know not how far he intends his journey; he came so lately into my company, that I have scarce had time to ask him the question.
AUCEPS. Sir, I shall, by your favor, bear you company as far as Theobald's; and there leave you, for then I turn up to a friend's house who mews a hawk for me, which I now long to see.
VEN. Sir, we are all so happy as to have a fine, fresh, cool morning, and I hope we shall each be the happier in the others' company. And, Gentlemen, that I may not lose yours, I shall either abate or amend my pace to enjoy it; knowing that, as the Italians say, 'Good company in a journey makes the way to seem the shorter.'
AUC. It may do so, Sir, with the help of good discourse, which, methinks, we may promise from you that both look and speak so cheerfully; and, for my part, I promise you as an invitation to it, that I will be as free and open-hearted as discretion will allow me to be with strangers.
VEN. And, Sir, I promise the like.
PISC. I am right glad to hear your answers: and in confidence you speak the truth, I shall put on a boldness to ask you, Sir, whether business or pleasure caused you to be so earlyup, and walk so fast; for this other gentleman hath declared he is going to see a hawk, that a friend mews for him.
VEN. Sir, mine is a mixture of both, a little business and more pleasure: for I intend this day to do all my business, and then bestow another day or two in hunting the otter, which a friend, that I go to meet, tells me is much pleasanter than any other chase whatsoever; howsoever, I mean to try it; for to-morrow morning we shall meet a pack of otter-dogs of noble Mr. Sadler's, upon Amwell Hill, who will be there so early, that they intend to prevent the sun rising.
PISC. Sir, my fortune has answered my desires; and my purpose is to bestow a day or two in helping to destroy some of those villanous vermin; for I hate them perfectly, because they love fish so well, or rather, because they destroy so much; indeed, so much, that, in my judgment, all men that keep otter-dogs ought to have pensions from the King to encourage them to destroy the very breed of those base otters, they do so much mischief.
VEN. But what say you to the foxes of the nation? Would not you as willingly have them destroyed? for doubtless they do as much mischief as otters do.
PISC. O Sir, if they do, it is not so much to me and my fraternity as those base vermin the otters do.
AUC. Why, Sir, I pray, of what fraternity are you, that you are so angry with the poor otters?
PISC. I am, Sir, a Brother of the Angle, and therefore an enemy to the otter: for you are to note that we Anglers all love one another, and therefore do I hate the otter, both for my own and their sakes who are of my brotherhood.
VEN. And I am a lover of hounds; I have followed many a pack of dogs many a mile, and heard many merry huntsmen make sport and scoff at Anglers.
AUC. And I profess myself a Falconer, and have heard many grave, serious men pity them, 't is such a heavy, contemptible, dull recreation.
PISC. You know, Gentlemen, 't is an easy thing to scoff at any art or recreation: a little wit, mixed with ill-nature, confidence, and malice, will do it; but though they often venture boldly, yet they are often caught, even in their own trap, according to that of Lucian, the father of the family of scoffers.
'Lucian, well skilled in scoffing, this hath writ:
Friend, that's your folly which you think your wit:
This you vent oft, void both of wit and fear,
Meaning another, when yourself you jeer.'
If to this you add what Solomon says of scoffers, that 'they are an abomination to mankind' (Prov. xxiv. 9), let him that thinks fit scoff on, and be a scoffer still; but I account them enemies to me, and to all that love virtue and Angling.
And for you that have heard many grave, serious men pity Anglers, let me tell you, Sir, there be many men that are by others taken to be serious and grave men, which we contemn and pity. Men that are taken to be grave, because nature hath made them of a sour complexion, money-getting men,--men that spend all their time, first in getting, and next in anxious care to keep it; men that are condemned to be rich, and then always busy or discontented: for these poor-rich-men, we Anglers pity them perfectly, and stand in no need to borrow their thoughts to think ourselves so happy. No, no, Sir, we enjoy a contentedness above the reach of such dispositions, and as the learned and ingenious Montaigne says like himself freely, 'When my cat and I entertain each other with mutual apish tricks, as playing with a garter, who knows but that I make my cat more sport than she makes me? Shall I conclude her to be simple, that has her time to begin or refuse to play as freely as I myself have? Nay, who knows but that it is a defect of my not understanding her language (for doubtless cats talk and reason with one another) that we agree no better? And who knows but that she pities me for being no wiser than to play with her, and laughs and censures my folly for making sport for her, when we two play together?'
Thus freely speaks Montaigne concerning cats, and I hope I may take as great a liberty to blame any man, and laugh at him too, let him be never so grave, that hath not heard what Anglers can say in the justification of their art and recreation; which I may again tell you is so full of pleasure, that we need not borrow their thoughts to think ourselves happy.
VEN. Sir, you have almost amazed me: for though I am no scoffer, yet I have, I pray let me speak it without offence, always looked upon Anglers as more patient and more simple men than I fear I shall find you to be.
PISC. Sir, I hope you will not judge my earnestness to be impatience: and for my simplicity, if by that you mean a harmlessness, or that simplicity which was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men and followers of peace,--men that were so simply-wise as not to sell their consciences to buy riches, and with them vexation and a fear to die; if you mean such simple men as lived in those times when there were fewer lawyers, when men might have had a lordship safely conveyed to them in a piece of parchment no bigger than your hand, though several sheets will not do it safely in this wiser age,--I say, Sir, if you take us Anglers to be such simple men as I have spoken of, then myself and those of my profession will be glad to be so understood: but if by simplicity you meant to express a general defect in those that profess and practice the excellent art of Angling, I hope in time to disabuse you, and make the contrary appear so evidently, that, if you will but have patience to hear me, I shall remove all the anticipations that discourse, or time, or prejudice, have possessed you with against that laudable and ancient art; for I know it is worthy the knowledge and practice of a wise man.
But, Gentlemen, though I be able to do this, I am not so unmannerly as to engross all the discourse to myself: and, therefore, you two having declared yourselves, the one to be a lover of Hawks, the other of Hounds, I shall be most glad to hear what you can say in the commendation of that recreation which each of you love and practise; and having heard what you can say, I shall be glad to exercise your attention with what I can say concerning my own recreation and art of Angling, and by this means we shall make the way to seem the shorter: and if you like my motion, I would have Mr. Falconer to begin.
AUC. Your motion is consented to with all my heart; and, to testify it, I will begin as you have desired me.
And first for the element that I use to trade in, which is the Air, an element of more worth than weight, an element that doubtless exceeds both the earth and water; for though I sometimes deal in both, yet the air is most properly mine,--I and my Hawks use that most, and it yields us most recreation. It stops not the high soaring of my noble, generous Falcon: in it she ascends to such an height, as the dull eyes of beasts and fish are not able to reach to; their bodies are too gross for such high elevations: in the air my troops of Hawks soar up on high, and when they are lost in the sight of men, then they attend upon and converse with the Gods; therefore I think my Eagle is so justly styled Jove's servant in ordinary: and that very Falcon, that I am now going to see, deserves no meaner a title, for she usually in her flight endangers herself, like the son of Daedalus, to have her wings scorched by the sun'os heat, she flies so near it, but her mettle makes her careless of danger; for she then heeds nothing, but makes her nimble pinions cut the fluid air, and so makes her high way over the steepest mountains and deepest rivers, and in her glorious career looks with contempt upon those high steeples and magnificent palaces which we adore and wonder at; from which height I can make her to descend by a word from my mouth, which she both knows and obeys, to accept of meat from my hand, to own me for her master, to go home with me, and be willing the next day to afford me the like recreation.
And more: this element of air which I profess to trade in, the worth of it is such, and it is of such necessity, that no creature whatsoever, not only those numerous creatures that feed on the face of the earth, but those various creatures that have their dwelling within the waters,--every creature that hath life in its nostrils stands in need of my element. The waters cannot preserve the fish without air, witness the not breaking of ice in an extreme frost: the reason is, for that if the inspiring and expiring organ of any animal be stopped, it suddenly yields to nature, and dies. Thus necessary is air to the existence both of fish and beasts, nay, even to man himself; that air, or breath of life with which God at first inspired mankind (Gen. ii. 7), he, if he wants it, dies presently, becomes a sad object to all that loved and beheld him, and in an instant turns to putrefaction.
Nay, more, the very birds of the air, those that be not Hawks, are both so many and so useful and pleasant to mankind, that I must not let them pass without some observations: they both feed and refresh him; feed him with their choice bodies, and refresh him with their heavenly voices. I will not undertake to mention the several kinds of fowl by which this is done; and his curious palate pleased by day, and which with their very excrements afford him a soft lodging at night. These I will pass by, but not those little nimble musicians of the air, that warble forth their curious ditties, with which Nature hath furnished them to the shame of Art.
Meet the Author
Izaak Walton (1593-1683) was born in Stafford. He was a biographer of the poet John Donne, and wrote lives of other notable Anglicans, including George Herbert and Richard Hooker. He was a Royalist, and during the Civil War participated in a royalist conspiracy after the battle of Worcester. In The Compleat Angler he expressed his political and religious allegiances while exploring humanity's relationship to the natural world. He is buried in Winchester Cathedral, where he is commemorated by a stained-glass window in the Fishermen's Chapel.
Charles Cotton (1630-87) was a country gentleman, poet, and translator, who built a fishing house for himself and Walton at his birthplace, Beresford Hall in Staffordshire. In 1676, at Walton's invitation, he wrote the second part to The Compleat Angler.
Marjorie Swann, editor, grew up fishing for perch and pike on St Joseph Island, Ontario. She subsequently earned degrees at Queen's University and Oxford. She is the author of Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (2001) and is writing a book about Walton's Angler and its post-seventeenth-century afterlives.
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