Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler: An Introduction to Liberal Arts

A classic that captures the spirit of fun-loving mirth and the lightheartedness of innocent recreation, Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653) offers not only a schooled fisherman’s lore on the nature of fish, bait, and streams but also introduces the liberal art of fishing. In introducing his classic on the art of fishing (“The Contemplative Man’s Recreation”), Walton intends to benefit readers with “much pleasure or profit” unless they be “too grave or too busie men” or “severe, sowre-complexion’d” persons. Distinguishing the leisurely recreation of fishing from the frenzied pleasures of gambling, from the seductive snares of the court “full of flattery,” and from “the City full of wantonnesses,” Walton compares the fisherman’s recreation to a healing medicine: “a rest to his mind, a chearer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness.” As a form of play, leisure, and contemplation the art of angling teaches the art of living, the ability of being at peace with one’s self, with one’s neighbor, with one’s environment, and with God. Walton describes anglers as “honest, civil, quiet men” whose “calm, quiet, innocent recreation” separates them from lawyers preoccupied with business, merchants consumed with money-making, and statesmen involved in plots. The fisherman, unlike the worldly man in constant pursuit of wealth who “is always so busie, that he has no leasure to laugh” and “whose business … is to get money, and more money, that he may still get more and more money,” knows the value of recreation that restores the soul, cultivates contemplation, and leads to an awareness of God’s divine providence (“That rivers and the Inhabitants of the watry Element were made for men to contemplate”).

Throughout the book Walton demonstrates that reveling in an innocent sport like fishing—a recreation inherently delightful enjoyed purely for its own sake as an end in itself—without any utilitarian or economic motives is always rewarding and beneficial. Walton compares the joy of fishing to the love of doing good for its own sake, “a reward to it self.” To engage in a liberal activity for the sheer joy and pure fun of the activity always brings surprising, unforeseen favors. While fishing is a delightful sport of the art of angler versus the instinct of the fish and offers the pleasure of fresh fish for dinner, it also cultivates a sense of peace that accompanies the leisureliness and quiet which fishing Instills. Other perquisites that accompany the recreation of the angler are an informal education in patience and hope. Because fishing is “the contemplative man’s recreation” and not a business, results, profits, and numbers and sizes of fish do not matter. Because angling is not a means to an end but an end in itself pursued for its own sake, the fisherman does not need a work ethic, a business plan, or a schedule, only “a large measure of patience and hope to the Art itself.”

Walton CoverThe simple fisherman is not an affluent Epicurean who lives to eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow he dies because the angler looks forward to enjoying his favorite recreations throughout the course of his entire lifetime and never feels the temptation of gluttony, no matter the size of the catch. He savors and delights in the taste of fresh fish, “a temperate, poor Angler who relishes eating” more than those who can afford luxuries, “the rich men and gluttons.” Patience, hope, temperance, and humility—without deliberate, concentrated, disciplined effort—attend to the fisherman with their graces. The sport also encourages conversation, hospitality, and conviviality with friends: “Well brother Peter and Cordon, to you both; come drink; and then tell me what luck of fish.” The fisherman is a sociable man and a gentleman, a “civil, well govern’d, well grounded, temperate, poor angler” who envies no one at court but harbors good will toward all men. He relishes the heartiness of life’s simplest pleasures: “Good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue.”

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The enormous variety and abundance of fish evoke wonder at the Providence of God and inspire contemplation at the goodness and beauty of creation: “I will walk the Meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the Lillies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures, that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him.” The ingenuous nature of angling disowns swearing and scurrility, and anglers do not give offense by their speech or manners as their civility, affability, and modest speech reflect purity of heart: “[W]e seldom take the name of God into our mouths, but it is either to praise him, or to pray to him.” Comparing the anglers to the fishermen who became the disciples of Christ and to the primitive Christians (“who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men, and followers of peace”), Walton explains that the virtues instilled by the contemplative man’s recreation dispose a person to live the life of the Beatitudes, especially the Beatitudes “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Blessed are the meek.”

As Piscator (the name of the fisherman) teaches the Scholar, without a meek and thankful heart riches do not make a man happy, and two habitations where God dwells are “one in Heaven; and the other in a meek and grateful heart.” These early Christians, “so simply-wise, as not to sell their Consciences to buy riches,” exemplify, then, two other Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Walton observes that Christ chose four fishermen to be among the twelve disciples and never reproved their work as He disapproved of the tax collectors and the Scribes. Christ recognized in the four fishermen—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—“that the hearts of such men by nature were fitted for contemplation and quietnesse; men of mild, and sweet, and peaceable spirits, as indeed most Anglers are.” Thus Walton shows that the art of angling instills the art of peaceful living and the art of simple contentment. Because of his contentment in such simple pleasures as the beauty of creation in the streams and fountains (“how I love/ Upon thy flowry banks to lye, / And view thy silvery stream”), the angler escapes the temptations of avarice in the marketplace and of envy at the court.

The art of living not only appreciates the simple pleasures but also savors deeply the goodness of God in relishing these enjoyments and marveling at their sweetness, taste, and fullness. After Piscator catches the trout and prepares the fish with his favorite recipe, his companion Venator exclaims, “This Fish is infinitely better, than any I ever tasted.” Like David in the Psalms uttering “Taste and see the sweetness of the Lord,” Piscator gives the praise to the Creator for the copiousness and deliciousness of his gifts: “Good God! How sweet are all things here! / How beautiful the fields appear! / How cleanly, do we feed and lye! / Lord! what good hours do we keep!” The angler never ceases to marvel at the prodigious variety of Mother Nature’s bounty in the number and kinds of fish, for “the waters are natures storehouse, in which she locks up her wonders.” Quoting from George Herbert’s poem “Providence,” Walton expresses awe at the generosity of God’s plenty: “And none can know thy works, they are so many, / And so compleat….” Citing Pliny, (“That Nature’s great and wonderful power is more demonstrated in the Sea than on the Land”) and quoting Dubartas (“God quickened in the sea and in the rivers, / So many fishes of so many features,” Walton shows that the art of angling deepens man’s sense of appreciation for the sweetness, goodness, and abundance of God’s Providence and teaches him how to enjoy all of the riches of creation. Venator, who learns the art of angling from Piscator, confesses that he has learned the art of living from the enjoyment of fishing: “for indeed, your company and discourse have been so useful and pleasant, that I may truly say, I have only lived since I enjoyed them, and turned angler, and not before.”

In short, the angler acquires a liberal education while fishing and contemplating, keenly aware of the goodness, beauty, and truth that Mother Nature declares when a man finds the leisure to enjoy his favorite outdoor pastime. If wonder is the beginning of philosophy, the angler’s wonder at God’s Providence makes him philosophize: “Can any man charge God, that he hath not given him enough to make his life happy? No doubtless; for nature is content with little: and yet, you shall hardly meet with a man, that complains not of some want, though he indeed wants nothing but his will….” Walton’s knowledge of fishing instructs him in the virtue of temperance: if a person has a pure heart, enjoys good health, and earns an honest livelihood (a “Competence”), he understands the first principles of happiness: “nature is content with a little.” Cured of pride, envy, and wrath by a love of fishing, the angler escapes the temptations of the world that overcome the avaricious and the gluttonous who live only for the body and ignore the life of the heart and soul that good cheer and contemplation nourish. Rather than “spend all their time, first in getting, and next, in anxious care to keep it … always busie or discontented,” fishermen adjust the demands of business to accommodate the quintessentially human pleasures that gladden the heart and inspire a love of life.

Without the healthy balance of work and play, melancholy oppresses the human spirit, the capacity for joy diminishes, and a person loses a child’s sense of wonder and adventure. Angling educates a person to enjoy all of life: the beauty of the meadows and streams, the pure delight of a favorite sport, the mirth and conviviality of friendship, the pleasure of contemplation in beholding the handiwork of God’s Providence, and the lightheartedness of laughter and humor that proclaim “Taste and see the sweetness of the Lord.”


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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