One of the most reprinted books in English literature is The Compleat Angler, a pastoral discourse on the joys of fishing by Izaak Walton. The book was first published in 1653, and an enlarged last edition appeared in 1676. It is this last edition which has been among the best-selling books in the English language.
The book’s subtitle: The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, tells us that it is more than a fishing manual; it is also a work of philosophy, an ode to fishing as a noble calling, a celebration of tranquillity and reflection.
While I am not much of an angler myself, what The Compleat Angler proves is something I’ve long suspected – that fishing is a superb way of losing oneself from the din of a busy world that never seems to be able to savor the joy of quiet contemplation. True, fishing has a goal (to catch a fish) and true, angling involves the activity of getting hooks, lines and sinker ready and findng a place where one is to fish. But, the real meat of fishing – what lies at its heart – is stillness. It is about keeping quiet, waiting and forgetting time. It is about being and “not being”. It is for poets and philosophers. In fact, it is poetry and philosophy.
The Compleat Angler is written in the form of a dialogue between an angler (Pescator) and a traveller (Viator). Pescator takes Viator fishing and teaches him fishing and the poetics of fishing. Each evening, the pair return to the pub and after eating the day’s catch, they sing a song of praise to the country life and to fishing. Indeed, the book is enlivened by more than forty songs and poems, country folklore, recipes, anecdotes, moral meditations as well as quotes from the Bible and from classic literature.
Central to the restful power of fishing, says Walton, is that it brings man close to water. Rivers to him, are the ideal spot for tranquil reflection. Walton cites the children of Israel who chose the banks of the Babylon to sit down and remember Zion. “Both rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element”, he maintains, “were created for wise men to contemplate and fools to pass by without consideration.”
The spiritual descendant of Walton is a man called Chris Yates, a celebrated carp fisher. “Its nice to catch a fish, but it’s not really the point”, says Yates. What then is the point? Here, the poet in Yates speaks of merging with the water and abandoning oneself to the contemplation of the mysterious world beneath the surface of the water. “It’s like a veil”, Yates says. “You want to lift it, make contact with that other dimension.”
Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998), one of the giants of 20th century British poetry, captures this sense of total immersion beautifully in his poem ‘Go Fishing’ (1983) in which he writes of joining the water, letting the mind melt into the earth and forgetting language.
Join water, wade into under-being
Let brain mist into moist earth
Ghost loosen away downstream
Gulp river and gravity
Crawl out over roots, new and nameless
Search for face, harden into limbs.
Let the world come back, like a white hospital
Busy with urgency words.
As Hughes’s poem suggests, sooner or later, the angler must return to the world, which comes back “like a white hospital” – urgent, anxious, busy, sterile. The image of the white hospital is a brilliant one for symbolising worldly angst and the need, from time to time, to go back to the waters.