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The Compleat Angler: And Other Meditations on the Art and Philosophy of Fishing, 15th Century to the Present: Izaak Walton

The exhibit is located in the Reading Room at Archives & Special Collections, 363 Hillman Library, Spring - Fall 2017.

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Portrait of Walton

Portrait of Walton from the 1836 Edition

The Complete Angler, Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, 1836

Walton's House

Walton's House

The Complete Angler, Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, 1822

Izaak Walton

Picture of Izaak Walton

The Complete Angler, Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, 1822

Izaak Walton was a 17th century English biographer, nature writer and angler.  Born in about 1594 he lived until 1683.  Very little is known of his early life, but his biographical information is more reliably documented after he moved to London in his later teens.  There he worked as a draper --- a career in which he seems to have prospered.  Walton was an intelligent, gifted and energetic person.  In his late middle age, he moved to the countryside near Stafford.  This was a “retirement” in response to the social conditions of the English Civil War.  Walton was an Anglican and a Royalist, and, like other supporters of the monarchy, was clearly aware that he was safer at a distance from London during the period of Puritan dominance.

Walton was a friend of many prominent English Anglican clergymen, among them several bishops influential in the period of the early restoration in England such as Bishop Sanderson and Bishop Morley.  Walton also knew and was respected by important English literary figures, and he wrote biographies of several eminent English writers and thinkers, including the poets John Donne and Sir Henry Wotton, who were his friends.

The Angler's Wish - Exerpt from The Compleat Angler

I in these flowry Meads wou’d be:
These Chrystal streams should solace me;
To whose harmonious bubling noise,
I with my Angle wo’d rejoice
Sit here and see the Turtle-dove,
Court his chast Mate to acts of love,
Or on that bank, feel the west wind
Breath, health and plenty, please my mind
To see sweet dew-drops kiss these flowers,
And then washt off by April-showers:
Here hear my Kenna sing a song,
There see a Black-bird feed her young,
Or a Leverock build her nest;
Here, give my weary spirits rest,
And raise my low pitcht thoughts above
Earth, or what poor mortals love:
Thus free from Law-suits, and the noise
Of Princes Courts I wou’d rejoyce.
Or, with my Bryan, and a book,
Loyter long days near Shawford-brook;
There sit by him, and eat my meat,
There see the Sun both rise and set:
There bid good morning to next day,
There meditate my time away:
      And angle on, and beg to have
      A quiet passage to a welcome grave.

The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, 1653

The Compleat Angler

Izaak Walton’s most important and famous work is The Compleat Angler.  He published the first edition in 1653, and revised it through five editions in his lifetime.  It has remained in print and has continued to be an influential work that has helped shape English and American writing on nature, fishing, and landscapes during the last 350 years.

The Compleat Angler is a complex work.  It is at once a prose narrative, a compendium of poems and quotes, and, most famously, a manual on angling in the 17th century.  There are many aspects of the Angler’s construction that are congruent with conventions of literary genres such as the pastoral poem.  The sense of living a simple life close to nature, and the use of dialogue between characters are examples of shared literary forms.

In addition, the Angler has many descriptions of specific fish and how to catch them, landscapes that are ideal for fishing, and methods of fishing, which has made it a work of interest to a wide variety of people.  The use of the word compleat in the title places this aspect of the work in a group of English treatises on how to accomplish various practical matters written at that time.

This exhibit illustrates these features of The Compleat Angler with editions published from the 17th century through the 20th century, using quotations from the 1676 edition, along with engravings from the 1822 and the 1836 editions.  We have also included additional works of art and literature from Dame Juliana Berners’ 15th century treatise on fishing to present-day classics, highlighting excerpts by writers that may have influenced, or were inspired or challenged by The Compleat Angler.


Image is title page from The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, 1653