Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tale of the Trout

"An Old Story: Dedicated to a four-pond trout" is Thornton Burgess's first published work, appearing in the June 8, 1895 issue of Forest and Stream magazine. (As always, click on it if you are having trouble reading it).

This is a poem about communing with nature (listening to what nature is saying), failing to get the big one, but being OK about it. It's an "old story," after all.
The bonus here is an essay, for which the poem serves as an introduction--"Trouting on Cape Cod." It is very much a set with Burgess's essays on hunting (discussed in a previous post)--the joy of fishing is not in the catching but in the opportunity it affords to commune with nature--and actually repeats a scene from later essay on hunting in a Cape Cod marsh (Fred's skill in attracting yellow-legs through whistling.)


Here's the final paragraph in its entirety, bubbling over Whitman-style:
I have been a-fishing! I have waded the brooks, visited old haunts, breathed pure air, listened to the birds, torn my clothes on a barbed wire fence, scratched my hands in the brambles, wet my feet, regretfully watched the circles made by a "big one" that broke away, enjoyed to the utmost the little fellow that I caught, filled my mind with the pleasantest of recollections, and now, as I settle down to work, look eagerly forward to the time when I can once more say, "I go a-fishing."
The overt Biblical reference is unusual in Burgess. The quote is from John 21:3 (King James): "Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing." [UPDATE: Burgess's mother wanted to him to enter the clergy; he wanted to be a naturalist. It is fitting that both perspectives should enter his first published piece of writing.]

In fact, Burgess (at least in his imagination) would catch that trout. In a 1896 New England Homestead essay, he describes in detail how he caught, "The Big Trout of Kane's Hole."

A spring morning clear and fresh, with the leaves just bursting forth, and the early songsters whistling in the alders along the banks of the old Town brook, and casually hinting at the speckled beauties that lie hid in the cool depths below, is an inducement that is not to be resisted and I promptly decided to go a-fishing. With my trusty little lancewood, stiff enough for bait fishing and still not too stiff to throw a fly, a 40-yard click reel, with a fine but strong colorless silk line, a stout three-foot leader, half a dozen No. 6 single snell-hooks, and assortment of dark-colored flies, and I am ready to do battle with the wariest old warrior in the stream.

Starting at the pool just below the old mill, a fat wriggling angleworm brings out three little fellows with a rush, but farther down in the ripple above the old hedge, 10 minutes' careful work brings nothing, until I try a brown hackle and a professor, with two plump half-pounders as the result. Cautious work in the pool at the foot of the falls, and patient, careful efforts beneath the big sunken log net me five, and then follows a fruitless half-hour.

Preferably I fish up stream, as trout invariably lie head up and are less liable to take alarm, but in this case I am fishing down stream and by 10 o'clock have reached the broad green marshes where at every bend of the creek are deep, dark holes, famous for their big trout.

In one of these, known as Kane's hole, there is an old veteran whom I have tried, and tried again, without success, and I scarce hope for better luck today. Quietly and cautiously I approach until within throwing distance, and try him with a worm. It is useless, and every fly and combination of flies in my book give no better result. A minnow brings a strike, a miss, a half-hour of quiet, and then I try shrimp. There is a moment's pause, then a rush that takes a clear 20 yards of line, and the fight is on.

What an indescribable thrill rushes through you with the knowledge that you have hooked a "big one," and know that it is a slender bit of wood, a mere thread and your own skill, against the weight and running tactics of an old veteran, with the odds in his favor. Foot by foot, yard by yard, the line is taken, and it is with fear and trembling that I give him the butt. Nobly the little lancewood bows and bends and stands the strain, and the first mad rush is checked.

The fifteen minutes of fighting and sullen sulking at the bottom of the hole, and he lies in the water at my feet, conquered. But no! As I stoop to lift him out there is another 10 minutes before I finally land him. And what a beauty he is, tipping the scales at 4 1/2 lbs, with his silvery speckled sides shining in the sun; and why should I not feel at peace with all the world as I hie me home over the marshes and green meadows, with the knowledge that the big trout of Kane's hole is mine, fairly won in a fair fight?

If you want to know what a "brown hackle" or a "professor" are, check out this 1896 book about flies:


Poetry about fishing and other "sporting" activities has a long heritage, and this is clearly the tradition in which Burgess is working. Here's a British anthology from 1896 collecting poetry from a wide range of outdoor activities.

Note: this is not exactly nature poetry. Indeed, once again the concern with the "effeminate" seems to be an issue. The sporting poetry tradition places itself squarely on the side of the "masculine" rather than "feminine" sentimentalism.

Next: The romantic side of Burgess

Please note: I am going out of town this weekend and am likely not to have internet access. Posts will resume next week.

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