“The Retirement”

Izaak Walton first published his immensely popular The Compleat Angler or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation in 1653.  In 1676, he published the fifth edition of his book, with an added section on fly fishing.  This section, as anyone familiar with the book knows, was authored at Walton’s invitation by poet Charles Cotton.

Walton and Cotton were very close.  Cotton described himself, in correspondence between the two, as Walton’s “son.”  He also dedicated one of his own poems to his much older “father,” mentor, and fishing companion.  This poem is entitled “The Retirement.”  In content, it seems to speak to Walton’s profound love for the English country landscape, and specifically The River Dove, which the two friends fished together (Cotton’s fishing house, which he shared with Walton, is pictured below).

   © Copyright neil gibbs

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright neil gibbs

Upon a close reading, though, it is clear that many of the sentiments are, understandably, Cotton’s.  In his section of The Compleat Angler, Walton praises intimate companionship with fellow sportsmen as highly as he does the landscape created by his “God of Nature.”  (His attitude is remarkably sunny, considering that he published the book just after the conclusion of the long, bloody English Civil War).  Yet, in “The Retirement,”  Cotton speaks longingly of the “solitude,” “safety,” and “privacy” that he can sometimes find on The River Dove.  Moreover, it is quite clear that Walton had no interest in “retirement,” whether on a stream or elsewhere.  After all, he spent many of his last years working on further editions of The Compleat Angler.  In fact, he was 83 years old, when he published the fifth edition.  Still, “The Retirement” is a lovely and all-too-often overlooked poem, which Walton no doubt appreciated, even if it didn’t precisely capture his feelings about fishing and old age.

“The Retirement”*

I.

Farewell, thou busy world! and may
We never meet again;
Here I can eat and sleep, and pray,
And do more good in one short day,
Than he, who his whole age outwears
Upon the most conspicuous theaters,
Where naught but vanity and vice do reign.

II.

Good God! how sweet are all things here!
How beautiful the fields appear!
How cleanly do we feed and lie!
Lord! what good hours do we keep!
How quietly we sleep!
What peace! what unanimity!
How innocent from the lewd fashion
Is all our business, all our recreation!

III.

O, how happy here’s our leisure!
O, how innocent our pleasure!
O ye valleys! O ye mountains!
O ye groves, and crystal fountains!
How I love at liberty,
By turns to come and visit ye!

IV.

Dear solitude, the soul’s best friend,
That man acquainted with himself dost make,
And all his Maker’s wonders to entend,
With thee I here converse at will,
And would be glad to do so still,
For it is thou alone that keep’st the soul awake.

V.

How calm and quiet a delight
Is it alone
To read, and meditate, and write;
By none offended, and offending none!
To walk, ride, sit, or sleep at one’s own ease,
And, pleasing a man’s self, none other to displease!

VI.

O my beloved nymph, fair Dove!
Princess of Rivers! how I love
Upon thy flowery banks to lie,
And view thy silver stream,
When gilded by a summer’s beam
And in it all thy wanton fry
Playing at liberty;
And, with my angle, upon them,
The all of treachery
I ever learned industriously to try.

VII.

Such streams, Rome’s yellow Tiber cannot show,
The Iberian Tagus, or Ligurian Po;
The Maese, the Danube, and the Rhine,
Are puddle-water all, compared with thine;
And Loire’s pure streams yet too polluted are
With thine, much purer, to compare;
The rapid Garonne and the winding Seine,
Are both too mean,
Beloved Dove, with thee
To vie priority;
Nay, Thame and Isis, when conjoined submit,
And lay their trophies at thy silver feet.

VIII.

O my beloved rocks, that rise
To awe the earth and brave the skies!
From some aspiring mountain’s crown,
How dearly do I love,
Giddy with pleasure, to look down,
And from the vales to view the noble heights above!
O my beloved caves! from Dog-star’s heat,
And all anxieties, my safe retreat;
What safety, privacy, what true delight,
In th’ artificial night
Your gloomy entrails make,
Have I taken, do I take!
How oft, when grief has made me fly,
To hide me from society,
Ev’n of my dearest friends, have I
In your recesses’ friendly shade,
All my sorrows open laid,
And my most secret woes intrusted to your privacy!

IX.

Lord! would men let me alone,
What an over-happy one
Should I think myself to be,
Might I, in this desert place,
Which most men in discourse disgrace,
Live but undisturbed and free!
Here, in this despised recess,
Would I, maugre Winter’s cold,
And the Summer’s worst excess,
Try to live out to sixty full years old!
And, all the while,
Without an envious eye,
On any thriving under Fortune’s smile,
Contented live, and then–contented die.

C.C.

*This version of “Retirement” is taken from Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, The Compleat Angler, or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, with an Introduction by Howell Raines  (New York: The Modern Library, 1996).   The Modern Library’s text is based upon the 1889 edition of The Compleat Angler, published by James Russell Lowell.

4 Responses to ““The Retirement””

  1. rivertoprambles Says:

    I’m trying to think of an English ode or address to a trout stream that might predate “The Retirement,” but I’m at a loss to think of one.

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  2. Kenov Says:

    You have me wondering now, too. I wouldn’t be surprised to some musing about specific waters, but something specifically about trout, in English, might be tough. I haven’t read the literature carefully, but salmon, at least, figure into some of the ancient Welsh and Brettonic tales.

    It’s a great poem. I can’t believe I overlooked it all the previous times that I read The Compleat Angler.

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  3. Thom Goodmann Says:

    I teach Walton too in a course on literature and nature, and really see TCA as a watershed (excuse!) Is there an earlier non-aristocratic voice speaking to the values of outdoor recreation? In this regard the book strikes me as so modern, voicing and valuing the desire to get away from the worlds of court, city, and business (what the Romans defined as neg-otio; “not-leisure”). Thanks for sharing this poem: I’m going to try to memorize it for the campfire!

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    • Kenov Says:

      I agree that it is an important book, especially when one considers it in context. The fact Walton borrows from previous texts doesn’t bother me much, since what I love about the book is original. I was just reading and essay this morning that makes me appreciate Walton all the more.

      While I like that his is non-aristocratic, I would love to find something from the lower classes. I’ve been thinking of including a little story on poaching, or something.

      How do your students like Walton?

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