SI Vault
John McDonald
June 03, 1957
In her "Treatise of Fishing with an Angle," the 15th century nun bequeathed to literature a new and enduring form of the writing art—and left to posterity a fascinating speculation
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June 03, 1957

Dame Juliana's Legacy

In her "Treatise of Fishing with an Angle," the 15th century nun bequeathed to literature a new and enduring form of the writing art—and left to posterity a fascinating speculation

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It happened along the Alun, which flows from the Welsh hills into the Dee, where in a pastoral setting out of Walton, on a day "like that recorded in his work...mild and sunshiny, with now and then a soft-dropping shower, that sowed the whole earth with diamonds," Irving came on an old angler with a wooden leg lecturing two rustic disciples in the art. "His face bore the marks of former storms, but present fair weather; its furrows had been worn into a habitual smile...he had altogether the good-humored air of a constitutional philosopher who was disposed to take the world as it went."

With a bow to Walton for his idyll and another to Berners for her maxims, Irving concluded that angling was suited neither to him nor to America, but only to England where there is "rule and system" and where "every roughness has been softened away from the landscape."

Irving was mistaken about the ability of Walton to inspire a love of angling and about his future in America. A revered scholar of angling, George Washington Bethune, was to introduce Walton into the U.S. with an edition of The Compleat Angler in 1847. It was probably the most influential book in the U.S. in the 19th century. Writers paid tribute to it, including the great Thad. Norris (The American Anglers' Book, 1864), who said, "The true angler is thoroughly imbued with the spirit of gentle old Izaak." To the end of the 19th century the classic of the 17th dominated the mood not only of much of English but of most of American angling writing. But Irving was right in feeling that Walton's influence was more in the idyll than the angling; and he anticipated Walton's decline in the present century.

Although Berners is an obscure figure by comparison with Walton, her influence on angling to this day is stronger than his. I am tempted to discuss her style, the economy and directness of which are more in the temper of our time than is Walton's, but she has not been much read in recent years (or in recent centuries) and her real influence lies in the way she molded the foundations of the literature.

Berners has two roles in angling history. Unlike Walton, she influenced neither its substance nor its moods, properties that belong to the inventions of each new generation. Her influence lay rather in form and theme, areas where "immutability"—defined as a long length of time—is common to literary history. Just as the pastoral and piscatory had their 2,000 years, thanks to Theocritus, so the angling Treatise has had its 500 still flourishing years, thanks to Berners.

The form of the Treatise—praise (appreciation), instruction and identity—remains the basic structure of modern angling writing. One important addition has been made to it, namely, proof by anecdote. That is, the writer tells you the means by which a fish may be caught and then he tells you a story of how in fact he caught a fish by this very means. Berners does not do this. She only generalizes. Anecdotal proof was introduced by Anon in 1577 along with the dialogue. Walton then brought both anecdote and dialogue to perfection. The dialogue form did not survive but the anecdote did. Furthermore, Walton surrounded the anecdote with the idyllic mood, which constitutes his original contribution to the art of angling writing. The idyllic anecdote—a little framed story—survives as the important addition to the Berners structure.

Readers will recognize it in almost every modern angling book and magazine article, whether it is G. E. M. Skues on the nuance of an old feather (followed by a cast and a marvelous rise), Theodore Gordon with his little fish story for almost every one of his innumerable instructions, George La-Branche with his repeated cast to the sacred inch, Edward R. Hewitt's unfailing nymphs, Jack Atherton's trout-enchanting spiders, Joe Brooks with his catches on every newly discovered stream, or Sparse Grey Hackle with his precise instructions on how not to catch a fish (stand in the water where they are). Trullinger, Moore, Hurley, Trueblood, Randolph, Wetzel, Jennings, McClane, Camp, Lewis, Leonard, Schwiebert—whoever your angling writer is, he will be teaching and proving his teaching with the rod; a nice spot to be in, for no one has ever disproved an angler's proof, and that is one reason why there will never be an end to the argument.

Proofs are often idylls. Two anglers following a stream discover a lost lake in a woods at the magic moment of the evening rise. One sits down on a rock to watch the other. A mystique of the ages unites them. What does Piscator say as he lays out a long line into the riffle in the twilight? He gives a little lecture on Pale Evening Duns. Likewise, Ray Bergman (Trout) will tell (if memory serves) a pretty story of how he crept up to the tail of an enchanting pool, laid a slack line across the outrunning water to get a momentary float on the edge of the tail, and lo! in that instant a 14-inch brown seized the fly and was on. This goes to show not that creeping up on pools is a divine pleasure (which it is, of course) but a practical maxim; don't overlook the extreme tails of pools. Some flower-picking critics conclude from this that anglers have no regard for the beauties of nature. Ask an angler and he will tell you that nature's moods escape capture; catch the trout and discuss the discussible. The old form of Berners, amended and refined by Anon and Walton, still serves this purpose.

As for the themes, Berners declares them: a merry spirit, joy without repentance, solace and peace. These have never changed. Implicitly and explicitly they have been recognized by every angler who ever taught his craft in speech or writing.

Walton developed the theme of innocence—his own angling innocence—with such an abounding sincerity as would nowadays be cause for suspicion. Long ago his sincerity was challenged in a discordant incident that distracted anglers from the true meaning of Berners.

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