Sunday, November 08, 2020

There I sat viewing the silver streams

I should have more time for the blog soon, but for now I will make do with posting a long quotation from The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. As Marjorie Swann's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition explains, Izaak Walton's story of vacationing fishermen 'embodies his artistic response to trauma' - the death of his son and the national tragedy of the Civil War. The book asks how we should live and turns to the natural world for an answer. As such it reminds me of the way people have been finding solace in nature and landscape during the pandemic. In my extract below, Walton's alter ego, Piscator, has just been demonstrating chub fishing to his companion Venator, and they are about to head to an inn for supper. "Let's be going, good master," Venator says, "for I am hungry again with fishing." But Piscator isn't quite ready:  

"Nay, stay a little, good scholar. I caught my last Trout with a worm; now I will put on a minnow, and try a quarter of an hour about yonder trees for another; and, so, walk towards our lodging. Look you, scholar, thereabout we shall have a bite presently, or not at all. Have with you, Sir: o' my word I have hold of him. Oh! it is a great logger-headed Chub; come, hang him upon that willow twig, and let's be going. But turn out of the way a little, good scholar! toward yonder high honeysuckle hedge; there we'll sit and sing whilst this shower falls so gently upon the teeming earth, and gives yet a sweeter smell to the lovely flowers that adorn these verdant meadows.

"Look! under that broad beech-tree I sat down, when I was last this way a-fishing; and the birds in the adjoining grove seemed to have a friendly contention with an echo, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow tree near to the brow of that primrose-hill. There I sat viewing the silver streams glide silently towards their centre, the tempestuous sea; yet sometimes opposed by rugged roots and pebble-stones, which broke their waves, and turned them into foam; and sometimes I beguiled time by viewing the harmless lambs; some leaping securely in the cool shade, whilst others sported themselves in the cheerful sun; and saw others craving comfort from the swollen udders of their bleating dams. As I thus sat, these and other sights had so fully possess my soul with content, that I thought, as the poet has happily express it,

    I was for that time lifted above earth,
    And possest joys not promis'd in my birth.

"As I left this place, and entered into the next field, a second pleasure entertained me; 'twas a handsome milk-maid, that had not yet attained so much age and wisdom as to load her mind with any fears of many things that will never be, as too many men too often do; but she cast away all care, and sung like a nightingale. Her voice was good, and the ditty fitted for it; it was that smooth song which was made by Kit Marlow, now at least fifty years ago; and the milk-maid's mother sung an answer to it, which was made by Sir Walter Raleigh, in his younger days. They were old-fashioned poetry, but choicely good; I think much better than the strong lines that are now in fashion in this critical age. Look yonder! on my word, yonder, they both be a-milking again. I will give her the Chub, and persuade them to sing those two songs to us.

These songs, reproduced in Walton's text, are of course the famous pastoral poems 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love' and 'The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd'.

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