The Compleat Angler
The Compleat Angler or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation by Izaak Walton was first published in 1653 and after several new editions is still in print to this day. The work is regarded as the definitive commentary on the art and enjoyment of angling and was one of the first books in the English Language to be mass produced.
Izaak Walton was born in Stafford and was the son of an innkeeper. As an adult he settled in London where he traded as an ironmonger in the Parish of St Dunstans. He was a religious man and became churchwarden and a good friend and fishing companion of the vicar John Donne. Donne was a celebrated poet and could have inspired a taste for learning in Walton who was not a highly educated man but who developed an interest in reading and scholastic pursuits. Walton appears to have been accepted amongst the local literary circle and began to write himself.
Walton was a staunch loyalist and returned to Staffordshire during the Civil War in which the loyalists were defeated. He spent the rest of his life reading, writing, fishing and visiting eminent clergymen. He enthusiastically collected information for The Compleat Angler, his most celebrated work, which was first published in 1653 but which he updated with additions over the following 25 years. The book eventually grew from 13 chapters to 21 by the fifth edition in 1676.
The book is a collection of both prose and verse featuring anecdotes, literary quotes, and biblical references. It has advice on the art of fishing, cooking the fish, varieties of bait and making flies but is much more a celebration of the English countryside and the contemplative life than an instruction manual. The book follows the story of three friends (originally two) travelling the countryside and gives a valuable insight into the rural life of the time. Levity is brought to the work by the inclusion of songs and ballads and there are even recipes to follow.
The Modern Reader
The modern reader may find the original Elizabethan English and spelling difficult to navigate and the natural history somewhat naïve but there are updated versions of The Compleat Angler in modern English which make the work more readable. This is, however, at the sacrifice of some of the charm of the writing and the sense of the period in which it was written.
There is no doubt about the validity of Walton’s angling expertise or the efficacy of the advice proffered in the book which remains one of the most highly regarded texts amongst modern anglers. Walton was a passionate and skilled fisherman although he was not an expert in fly fishing and the guidance on the subject in the first edition was actually a contribution by retired cook Thomas Barker. Although providing expert advice and valuable information for fisherman, The Compleat Angler is possibly more valuable and enjoyable as a celebration of the English countryside, rural life and as a window on the intellectual thinking of the time.