by Louise Segreto
Let’s admit it, sitting down to read “The Compleat Angler” can be very intimidating. This revered book written by Izaak Walton and first published in 1653 is often cited, but seldom read today. For good reason, I have over the years tried with solid resolve on severval occasions and given up…until just recently, when I changed my approach and finally did read it. Now I understand why this literary masterpiece has inspired so many people over the centuries.
Here are 10 practical tips to make your reading “The Compleat Angler” (the “Book”) fun, informative and relevant:
1. Say the title: “The Compleat Angler” out loud with authority. Get over the archaic spelling of “compleat.” It is just the old English spelling of “complete.” And, for that matter, relax and read or better yet skim at least 20 pages of the book before you put it down in defeat. It is a lot like reading Shakespeare- go with the flow of the verse and prose. And, just as you begin to get a bit lost, you will come upon a philosophical thought, a brilliant adage, or a keen observation by the master naturalist, Izaak Walton.
2. Consider the historical context of when Izaak Walton wrote. Just several years before the book was published, the English King, Charles I, was executed and the monarchy overthrown. The Puritan movement with its austerity and religious extremism was in full swing. Walton was about 60 years old when the book was published. He was a royalist (supported the monarchy) and a Christian moderate who took great pleasure in escaping to relax and fish in the English countryside as a relief from what was going on politically. Today, with the political machinations in Washington, I think that we all can identify with how Walton must have felt.
3. Don’t be daunted by Biblical references. The Book is full of references to the Bible and unless you are a biblical scholar, my advice is simply understand that many of Walton’s fishing buddies were priests, that Walton was a religious man and that the Book was written during religiously turbulent times. It is interesting to note that the clergy at that time did not hunt, but fished. It was believed that the quiet contemplation of angling was more in keeping with the traditional path of religious life. Also, Walton subscribes to a naturalistic theology of sorts—finding God through the contemplation of his creations.
4. Select one of the many poems that Walton incorporates into the Book. Copy it and put it in your tackle-box in a zip lock plastic bag. I chose the poem about Spring by Sir Henry Wotton which appears in Part I, Chapter V. Reading it aloud while sitting on an ice bucket on the Mississippi River in Minnesota one sub zero January day made me feel smart.
5. Embrace the Book’s refusal to fit neatly into any one literary niche. Yes, it is a practical fishing guide for anglers, but the information is presented in a poetical dramatic dialogue between 3 major characters: Piscator-the Angler, Venator-the Hunter and Auceps -the Falconer. The names are Latin for what the characters represent. This style of writing was then common. Literary scholars refer to such idealized descriptions combined with witty and rhetorical commentaries of the English country and rural life as “pastorals.”
6. Compare your favorite fish recipe with one of Walton’s. Check out his recipes for Chubs in Part I, Chapter III; one for spit roasting and the other for charcoal broiling. Salt, butter and herbs. Some things never change!
7. Highlight passages in which Izaak Walton describes his profound understanding of natural history and eco systems centuries before his time. You will find descriptions of his thoughts on regulating fishing during spawning seasons, the effect of carp as an invasive species to lake ecology, and detailed descriptions of insects and phenology.
8. Make a list of all the reasons why Walton believed that angling is an Art and what virtues a good fisherman must possess.
9. Find a philosophical musing that resonates with you. I honed in on: “Angling can prove to be so pleasant, that it proves to be like virtue, a reward to its self.” Translated: it doesn’t matter whether or not you catch a fish or not.
10. Enjoy the illustrations. The Book contains 6 small black and white copper plate engravings of different fish species. The artist’s name is lost to history.
Lastly, I lied, “The Compleat Angler” is not only the work of Izaak Walton. Part II of the Book was written by Walton’s dear friend Charles Cotton. The swashbuckling and adventurous Cotton was 37 years younger than Walton and admired and adored Walton with a fondness as a son for a father. They fished together. Cotton picks up Part II with the same characters that Walton began and continues their dialogue about how to stream fish for trout and grayling with great detail about different flies, what they look like and how they are made. It is somewhat tedious unless you are an accomplished fly fisherperson.
Challenge yourself and read “The Compleat Angler” this year. But, read it on your own terms. Remember you don’t have to read and understand every word of the Book to get a big return on your time. Perhaps a print copy may be a better choice than an electronic copy for purposes of notating and highlighting. I’m looking forward to listening to the audio version. I hope that the above tips help your reading journey. Great journeys are meant to be shared. Pass your copy of the Book on to someone you know when you’re done.