After 344 years, 'The Compleat Angler' still works magic with the human heart

September 14, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I am an angler. When circumstance allows, I go to wild, unspoilt, tumbling streams and as deftly as I can manage put tiny imitations of insects on the water's surface in hope of enchanting trout - almost invariably then to release them gently back to the water. I cannot explain the lapse, but in a lifetime of this fancy, I had never read the Bible, which for trout fishers is Izaak Walton's "The Compleat Angler."

Is there a book whose title has been more often tap-danced upon? The antique spelling of "complete" has become a pilfered trademark word for thousands of books and articles by people who could not, in broad daylight, tell a trout from a 1949 Studebaker. But there is more to it, much more, and with the release of a new printing (Ecco Press. 224 pages. $12 softcover) - which brings to well over 300 editions of the book in its 344 years - I settled down to fill the gap.

There is a pleasing introduction by Thomas McGuane, which includes the indisputable truth of the book's immortality: "Today's faithless reader is somewhat baffled by the long life of this unreliable fishing manual until he realizes that 'The Compleat Angler' is not about how to fish, but about how to be."

The word "angler" in this usage has nothing whatever to do with playing the angles (a billiards term?), but rather arises from the fact that using a rod (never a "pole") and a line creates an angle. And the people who do that came - well before Walton - to be called anglers.

Simple wisdom

Fervently, and early on, Walton characterizes anglers by the qualities of their lives, the chief ones of which are "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 vexations and a fear to die; if you mean such simple men as lived in those times when there were fewer lawyers...: 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 expressed."

Sounds like 1997 to me; 344 years is no more than a blink. That is the soul of the book.

The form of the work is a "conference," a conversation among an angler, who is Walton, a hunter, a falconer and an assortment of half a dozen other men and women who turn up in the course of five disciplined but relaxing days of walking, fishing, instruction, eating, drinking and singing.

To make it more formal and enchanting, the angler is identified as "Piscator," the hunter as "Venator," the falconer as "Auceps."

The action is perambulatory, as Piscator takes Venator and Auceps and his brother Peter and Peter's friend through full days of walking and fishing, making observations and giving instructions. There are incidental voices throughout the book: innkeepers, a milkmaid and her mother, others. Much quoting of poetry, singing of ballads.

As I suppose should be expected of an immortal book, there are many immortal lines. High among them: "For angling may be said to be so like the mathematics, that is can never be fully learnt; at least not so fully, but that there will still be more new experiments left for the trial of other men that succeed us." Ah, yes. As true today as then.

There are some matters that Walton describes that are simply and factually absurd - because in his day they were mysterious and now are well understood: the migration of certain birds, the upstream spawning runs of trout and salmon.

In cold fact, there is not a great deal in the book that today has practical usefulness. Centuries of serious observation and study scholars and anglers, the leaps of the physical sciences, technology, all have taken the art forward. Equipment, techniques, accumulation of knowledge, both of freshwater fish and of aquatic insects have changed everything immensely.

Donne did it

Walton was a distinguished fellow in his time, and an interesting one. Lowly born and with little formal education - his father and later stepfather were ale-house keepers - he became learned by reading and curiosity. He prospered a bit in business of his own and then, a pious Anglican, he held a series of church offices and grew close to the great John Donne, then vicar of St. Dunstan in the West, a London parish, who became a fishing companion. He outlived two wives. He wrote a series of well-regarded biographies including one of Donne and one of George Herbert.

The first edition of "The Compleat Angler" appeared in 1653 and the fifth and final edition to be updated and elaborated by Walton himself was done in 1676, when he was 83 years old, and purportedly still fishing. This text, and most others you may find, are taken from that final authentic edition.

The book did not become the classic that it remains today until the middle of the 1700s. A fresh edition was published in 1750, but its climb to cult status began only with the 1760 edition, which included a biographical piece by Sir John Hawkins.

In 1796, Charles Lamb wrote to Samuel Coleridge, "It breathes the very spirit of innocence, purity, and simplicity of heart. ... It would sweeten a man's temper at any time to read it."

And still it does.

In response to a blessing, Piscator's final line offers in return a blessing "upon all that are lovers of virtue, and dare trust in his providence, and be quiet, and go a-angling."

And, to close, a flick of scripture: " 'Study to be quiet' - I Thess. iv, 11."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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