1992-01-25: The Compleat Angler

This was the first of my book reports, presumably because it was the first of the classics recommended by Rexroth that I read. I recall very little of the book. As with many of the books in the list of book reports, I am somewhat surprised to see that I read it, let alone gave it enough thought to write about it.

The Compleat Angler  (1653-1676)

by Izaak Walton (1594-1683)

Following are some passages from the book.   It is designed as a dialog between the Angler and a chance-met hunter, who decides, on the impression made by the Angler, to become a scholar of the art of Angling. Their discourse over a few days in May includes a blend of observation and philosophy on fish and fishing, and the nature of life as seen from the Angler’s perspective. These passages are selected from some of the parts that are not about fishing.

They meet a milk-maid and her mother, and offer them their excess fish in return for a pair of ballads, for they each sing well. Walton says the first is by “Kit. Marlowe, now at least fifty years ago” (from 1653?), and the second by “Sir Walter Rawleigh in his younger days”.

The Milk-maid’s Song

Come live with me, and be my Love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, or hills, or fields,

Or woods, and steepy mountains yields.

Where we will sit upon the Rocks,

And see the Shepherds feed our flocks,

By shallow Rivers, to whose falls,

Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses,

And then a thousand fragrant Posies,

A Cap of flowers, and a Kirtle,

Embroidered all with leaves of mirtle.

A gown made of the finest Wool

Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;

Slippers lin’d choicely for the cold,

With buckles of the purest gold.

A Belt of Straw, and Ivy-buds,

With Coral Clasps and Amber studs:

And if these pleasures may thee move,

Come live with me and be my Love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat,

As precious as the Gods do eat,

Shall on an Ivory Table be

Prepar’d each day for thee and me.

The Shepherds Swains shall dance and sing

For thy delight each May-morning:

If these delights thy mind may move,

Then live with me, and be my Love.


The Milk-maid’s Mother’s Answer

If all the world and Love were young,

And truth in every Shepherds tongue,

These pretty pleasures might me move

To live with thee, and be thy Love.

But Time drives flocks from field to fold,

When Rivers rage, and rocks grow cold,

Then Philomel becometh dumb,

And age complains of care to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields

To wayward Winter reckoning yields,

A bony tongue, a heart of gall,

Is fancies spring, but sorrows fall;

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,

Thy cap, thy Kirtle, and thy posies,

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten,

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy Belt of Straw, and Ivy-buds,

Thy Coral clasps, and Amber-studs,

All these in me no means can move

To come to thee, and be thy Love.

What should we talk of dainties then,

Of better meat than’s fit for men?

These are but vain: that’s only good

Which God hath blest, and sent for food.

But could Youth last, and love still breed,

Had joys no date, nor age no need;

Then those delights my mind might move,

To live with thee, and be thy Love.

As the two sit under a hedge, out of the shower, while their rods fish for themselves, the Angler relates a piece of merriment that occurred to him and another friend:

On the other side of this very hedge sate a gang of Gypsies: the Gypsies were then to divide all the money that had been got that week, either by stealing linnen or poultrie, or by Fortune-telling or Legerdemain, or indeed, by any other sleights and secrets belonging to their mysterious Government. And the sum that was got that week proved to be but twenty and some odd shillings. The odd money was agreed to be distributed among the poor of their own Corporation; and for the remaining twenty shillings, that was to be divided unto four Gentlemen Gypsies, according to their several degrees in their Commonwealth.

And the first or chiefest Gypsie was, by consent, to have a third part of the twenty shillings; which all men know is 6s. 8d.

The second was to have a fourth part of the 20s. which all men know to be 5s.

The third was to have a fifth part of the 20s. which all men know to be 4s.

The fourth and last Gypsie was to have a sixth part of the 20s., which all men know to be 3s. 4d.

As for example,

3 times 6s. 8d. is                                             20s.

And so is 4 times 5s.                                        20s.

And so is 5 times 4s.                                        20s.

And so is 6 times 3s. 4d.                                 20s.

And yet he that divided the money was so very a Gypsie, that though he gave to every one these said sums, yet he kept one shilling of it for himself.

As for example,           s.         d.

                                              6          8

                                              5          0

                                              4          0

                                              3          4


make but                      19          0

But now you shall know, that when the four Gypsies saw that he had got one shilling by dividing the money, though not one of them knew any reason to demand more, yet like Lords and Courtiers every Gypsie envied him that was the gainer, and wrangled with him, and every one said the remaining shilling belonged to him: and so they fell to so high a contest about it, as none that knows the faithfulness of one Gypsie to another, will easily believe; only we that have lived these last twenty years, are certain that money has been able to do much mischief. However the Gypsies were too wise to go to Law, and did therefore chuse their choice friends Rook and Shark, and our late English Gusman, to be their Arbitrators and Umpires; and so they left this Hony-suckle-hedg, and went to tell fortunes, and cheat, and get more money and lodging in the next Village.

As they walk back toward London, the Angler finishes his discourse on fishing, and turns to general philosophy:

Well, Scholar; having now taught you to paint your Rod; and, we having still a mile to Tottenham High-Cross, I will, as we walk towards it, in the cool shade of this sweet Hony-suckle-Hedg, mention to you some of the thoughts and joys that have possest my Soul since we two met together. And, these thoughts shall be told you, that you also may joyn with me in thankfulness to the giver of every good and perfect gift for our happiness. And, that our present happiness may appear to be the greater, and we the more thankful for it: I will beg you to consider with me, how many do, even at this very time, lie under the torment of the Stone, the Gout, and Toothache; and, this we are free from. And, every misery that I miss is a new mercy, and therefore let us be thankful. There have been since we met, others, that have met disasters of broken Limbs, some have been blasted, others Thunder-stricken; and we have been freed from these, and all those many other miseries that threaten human nature: let us therefore rejoice and be thankful. Nay, which is a far greater mercy, we are free from the unsupportable burthen of an accusing, tormenting Conscience: a misery that none can bear, and therefore let us praise him for his preventing grace; and say, every misery that I miss, is a new mercy: Nay, let me tell you there be many that have forty times our Estates, that would give us the greatest part of it to be healthful and chearful like us; who with the expence of a little mony, have eat, and drank, and laught, and Angled, and sung, and slept securely: and rose next day, and cast away care, and sung, and laught, and Angled again: which are blessings, rich men cannot purchase with all their mony. Let me tell you Scholar: I have a rich Neighbor that is always so busie, that he has no leasure to laugh; the whole business of his life is to get money, and more money, that he may still get more and more money; he is still drudging on, and says, that Solomon says, the diligent hand maketh rich: and ’tis true indeed: but he considers not that ’tis not in the power of riches to make a man happy: for it was wisely said by a man of great observation, that there be as many miseries beyond riches as on this side them: and yet God deliver us from pinching poverty; and grant, that having a competency, we may be content and thankful. Let us not repine, or so much as think the gifts of God unequally dealt, if we see another abound with riches, when as God knows, the cares that are the keys that keep those riches hang often so heavily at the rich mans girdle, that they clog him with weary days and restless nights, even when others sleep quietly. We see but the outside of the rich mans happiness: few consider him to be like the Silk-worm, that, when she seems to play, is at the very same time spinning her own bowels, and consuming her self. And this many rich men do; loading themselves with corroding cares, to keep what they have (probably) unconscionably got. Let us therefore be thankful for health and a competence; and above all, for a quiet Conscience.

Let me tell you, Scholar, that Diogenes walked on a day with his friend to see a Country Fair; where he saw, Ribbins, and Looking-glasses, and Nut-crackers, and Fiddles, and Hobby horses, and many other gimcracks; and, having observed them, and, all the other finnimbruns that make a compleat Country fair: he said to his friend, Lord! How many things are there in this world of which Diogenes hath no need? And truly, it is so, or might be so, with very many who vex and toyl themselves, to get what they have no need of.

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