The Compleat Angler is a practical guide to the art of angling, or fishing. The work has a nominal plot: Piscator (a fisherman), Venator (a hunter), and Auceps (a falconer) meet by chance and fall to discussing the merits of each man’s preferred sport. Piscator’s eloquent description of the joys and virtues of fishing convinces Venator to accompany him for several days of fishing. The bulk of the work, however, consists of practical advice to fishermen, as told by Piscator to Venator, about such topics as bait and fishing equipment, the habits of different kinds of fish, and methods of catching and cooking various fish.
The Compleat Angler was by no means the only fishing handbook of its day. It was certainly the most popular, however, and by the middle of the twentieth century, The Compleat Angler had been reprinted and translated nearly four hundred times. What sets The Compleat Angler apart from other practical handbooks and puts it firmly in the realm of literature is its delightful style that is technically polished and charming to read and its abundance of insight into human nature.
Being a fishing handbook, The Compleat Angler does not fit neatly into any traditional literary category. It at times was described as a pastoral (that is, an idealized description of country life), a georgic (a poem dealing with rural concerns, not usually as idealized as a pastoral), or an eclogue (a poetic dialogue between shepherds or other rural characters), and it was even credited with originating a category of its own, the “piscatory.” The difficulty in categorizing The Compleat Angler and in separating the voluminous practical information from its more “literary” aspects may be one of the reasons that the work historically suffered from critical neglect. From a critical point of view, however, The Compleat Angler is interesting for its structure (which owes much to plays and other dramatic pieces of its day), its witty and rhetorically complex style, and its political and historical underpinnings.
To understand fully the subtle themes of The Compleat Angler, it is necessary to understand the historical era in which Izaak Walton wrote. Walton published The Compleat Angler in 1653, when he was sixty years old, and when England was in social upheaval. Walton was alive at the time that Oliver Cromwell’s army overthrew the monarchy and in 1649 executed King Charles I. The Puritan movement, with its austerity and religious fanaticism, was in full swing. Persecution of Anglican and Catholic believers was widespread. The struggle of the Royalists (supporters of the monarchy and the king’s son Charles) against the theocratic rule of Cromwell and his successors would soon succeed, resulting in a hedonistic backlash against Puritanism during the Restoration. It was a time of social, religious, and political extremes.
Walton was not an extremist by nature. A successful merchant and biographer, Walton had during the course of his life befriended many leading Anglican thinkers, including John Donne and Richard Hooker. In the gentle, intelligent theology of these friends and colleagues, Walton saw an ideal “middle path” between the extremes of Puritan and of Royalist. One of the themes of The Compleat Angler centers on finding this ideal (and theologically based) compromise between two extremes of thought. Early in the work, Piscator and his student Venator encounter a hunter pursuing otters. Although Piscator and the hunter enjoy a pleasant enough exchange, Piscator later confides to Venator that he does not care much for the company of the hunter, because he swears excessively and is given to sacrilegious and lewd jests. Piscator is not a prude, however; he explains that he does not enjoy the company of serious and overly grave men, of “sowre complexion” and “anxious care,” any more than he enjoys the company of the foul-mouthed hunter....
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