During the aftermath of the English Civil War, as the Puritan forces of Oliver Cromwell held the reins of power in England, a determined royalist and Anglican like Izaak Walton couldn’t exactly parade his true politics or theology–intertwined as they were–in safety. So what’s a thoughtful linen-draper like Walton to do? Walton went fishing.
One editor of Izaak Walton, Jonquil Bevan, insists that the author’s magnum opus,
The Complete Angler, stands as a sort of coded set of instructions to the down-but-not-out advocates of high-church Church of England. According to Bevan, it seems, you have anglers. You have Anglicans. Coincidence? I think not. The only problem with this theory is that if “angler” is really code for “Anglican,” it’s not entirely clear just what Walton’s message would be. The term, “Anglican,” it seems, while dating back perhaps a hundred years before Walton wrote, it did not come into common usage until a couple of hundred years after his peak. But even ignoring this fact, which perhaps makes his code more concealable, I’m not sure what to make of his work. Are the various fish species to be taken as different works for the Anglican to do? Are these fish representative of different sorts of men referred to when Jesus promised to make Peter and Andrew fishers of men? Or are they, as the text would suggest, simply fish?
What makes this understanding of Walton’s work difficult is its divided nature. Portions of The Complete Angler, such as the first chapter, stand as polemics on the excellence of fishing compared with other pastimes. Other parts abound with pastoral sentiments. The bulk of the work, on the other hand, is rather dry and straight-forward reporting on the proper ways to pursue, catch, and cook various sorts of fish.
Like his contemporary John Bunyan, Walton employs the artifice of dialogues to aid in presenting his opinions. At times, Walton’s hero, Piscator, forgets himself even more than do Bunyan’s characters in their most pedantic modes, droning on for pages regarding the Chub or the Dace.
The early three-way conversation between the angler and his hawking and hunting traveling companions, comes closest to sounding like a coded apology for an out-of-favor variety of Christianity. Consider these lines:
I hope you will not judge my earnestness to be impatience; and for my simplicity, if by that you mean 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 vexation 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 spoke of, then my self and those of my profession will be glad to be so understood.
Such a passage sounds impressive and clearly refers to something more significant than the sport of fishing. However, one would question whether if refers properly to the Anglicanism then in disfavor in England. If Piscator’s angling is to be equated with Anglicanism, then what are we to make of Venator the hunter and Auceps the hawker? Do they represent Puritanism and Catholicism respectively? There seems little evidence to support such identification. And what, in the paragraph quoted above, identifies with the pre-Civil-War Church of England. One need only stroll around Canterbury Cathedral for a moment to feel that the movement suggested in Piscator’s words does not completely align with the reality of the Anglican church.
All that said, it seems clear that Walton’s little hybrid book represents fishing in a positive light. Although his advice on catching English fish is not something easy to test for this Midwestern fisherman, his embrace of fishing as a combination of lifestyle, philosophy, and practical action does correspond with the sport practices some 350 years after his time.
By the way, an absolutely marvelous reading of not only Walton but other early fishing writers can be found in your faithful blogger’s
Haunted by Waters.