Walking north with Walton

Ideals have life and energy. They can live powerfully inside us.

| Sep 23, 2010

Driving the Peloponnese in Greece some years ago, through the countryside of Arcadia — where myth and tradition locate the Golden Age of pastoral perfection — I looked everywhere for an Arcadian landscape where shepherds and shepherdesses might tend their flocks under endlessly blue skies, in endless leisure, along crystal brooks, singing their songs of love and peace, with strife and greed unknown, and every need effortlessly satisfied. But I could not find it.

More recently, turning back to Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler, I thought again of his miles-long walk north out of London to Tottenham and on toward Ware along his beloved River Lea to fish the lovely spotted brown trout and possibly share the day with an agreeable companion. When I think how that great old royalist man of letters and affairs urges me, his reader, to take up my bed and walk out to a countryside of lovely little rivers, gentle fields, intimate village inns, and charming country folk, removed from every anxiety, greed, and resentment; when I understand that he offers me that perfection of the rural life in contrast to the system he so vehemently opposes: the monstrosity of London’s mercantilism — to which he was himself a hardware merchant in Fleet Street — I just cannot do it.

In our terrible times, invited as we are to every tea party, we can’t but see the world through a different system of lenses from those of the pastoral. We think we see more clearly, if bitterly, and are disabused of Arcadian and Waltonian idealisms.

Thing is, I suspect that the poets of Arcadian perfection from Virgil to Walton himself knew well enough that the pastoral ideal of Greek myth and of rural Old England were just that: ideals only. But, then, an ideal is never only an ideal.

Ideals have life and energy of their own. They can live powerfully inside us. They can cause us to try to live in certain ways.

If Izaak Walton’s ideal or idea of pastoral angling on the Lea or on the Dove in Derbyshire never quite existed, it surely lived inside his head and heart as it can do in ours — if we can get it there.

How do we get it? I’ve not seen it for sale in any fly shop. We may, however, be able to catch it, like a virus, from another angler who has it, as that fellow Venator caught it from Walton himself in the Compleat Angler. Or maybe it will rub off from its archetypal memory in art of all kinds. Maybe we are smart enough to invent it for ourselves out of the combination of deep memory and experience. Perhaps we can dream it.

This idea, once locked in, completes us as angler — the compleat angler whom Walton called “contemplative.” After we have acquired every item of tackle, every angling skill imaginable, this idea, this ideal, calls us to try to live without greed and avarice, or morbid striving — a life in harmony with the ideal landscape of the stream itself. A place to be quiet and grateful — and, as Walton added, to “go a-angling,” and “study to be quiet.”

If this ideal were just that, only an ideal, a literary construct from the imaginatively engaged Walton, if it never did and never will precisely exist, if there are no landscapes of that perfection, if it was all a matter of Walton’s all-creating artistic and social dreaming, it was for him, nevertheless, an instrument of his moral and psychological salvation. How terribly urgent, then, it must it be for us now, in our awful predicament, to imagine that ideal as powerfully as we can, and act it out. We need rescue of some sort.

Gordon Wickstrom is a Boulder native, navy man in the Philippines, CU grad and Stanford Ph.D., professor of drama, director and sometime actor. He retired home to Boulder in 1991, fishes with his wife Betty, and writes books, essays and columns on the angling life and on theatre. He is the oldest living — in captivity — writer about fishing in English, and a member, for the sake of his obituary, of the Flyfishers’ Club of London.

Comments are closed.