Charles Cotton

Born April 28, 1630, died February 16, 1687

harles Cotton was a teenager during the Civil War, and was nineteen when the King was executed at Whitehall. He seems to have had a liberal education, and it is thought that he went to Cambridge. He was familiar with French and Italian as well as the Classics. He was well educated, handsome and a great dinner companion, prized for his wit and conversation, though he could also be quarrelsome and something of a firebrand. He married his cousin Isabella Hutchinson in 1656, when he was 26. Two years later, on the death of his father, Charles inherited the estates of Beresford and Bentley, which are on the Staffordshire and Derbyshire border. The river Dove flowed nearby and it was here that he learnt to fly fish. He published his first piece the same year, a panegyric celebrating the coronation of Charles II. In 1664 he published a burlesque titled Scarronides, a popular and slightly pornographic work which ran to 14 editions. His wife died in 1670, leaving him with three sons and five daughters, but he married again five years later, to the widow of the Earl of Ardglass, a match which may have been an attempt to restore his fortunes, which had declined alarmingly under the pressure of his lifestyle.

After the restoration, Cotton divided his time between London and Beresford, receiving a commission in the King's forces. We do not know how he met Walton, although the latter grew up in Staffordshire and there is some evidence that Cotton was known to Walton many years before their collaboration on the Compleat Angler. Cotton certainly fished with Izaac Walton a great deal in later years, and built a fishing house on the banks of the Dove, the work being undertaken in 1674 (the hut still stands, despite rumours to the contrary). Cotton and Walton's initials were carved into a stone set above the door, below the inscription piscatoribus sacrum. At Walton's request, Cotton wrote his celebrated second part of the Compleat Angler two years after the completion of the fishing house. The work was the first detailed treatise on fly fishing, appearing in the fifth edition of the Compleat Angler, and has on the title page the same monogram as the one set above the door of the fishing house itself. Walton was 83 in that year; it isn't clear whether he ever mastered fly fishing, and it is quite likely that his days on the Dove were spent dapping live Mayfly.

Besides being a fly fisherman, Cotton wrote some fairly bawdy poetry (the years haven't treated it kindly, and it would hardly raise an eyebrow if posted on the Internet these days), translated various books from the French, and wrote The Compleat Gamester (1674). His poetry continued to be popular throughout the eighteenth century and some was addressed to Walton. Some of it was pretty dreadful:

If the all-ruling Power please

We live to see another May,
We'll recompense an age of these
Foul days in one fine fishing day:

We shall then have a day or two,
Perhaps a week, wherein to try,
What the best Master's hand can do
With the most deadly killing fly;

A day without too bright a beam,
A warm, but not a scorching sun,
A southern gale to curl the stream,
And (Master) half our work is done.

Then whilst behind some bush we wait
The scaly people to betray,
We'll prove it just with treacherous bait
To make the preying trout our prey;

This (my best Friend) at my poor home
Shall be our pastime and our theme,
But then should you not deign to come
You make all this a flatt'ring dream.

Cotton's later years were marred by financial difficulties. He petitioned Parliament twice to sell parts of his estate and although his literary efforts continued, his income from published works was insufficient to allow him to make ends meet and he had to sell Beresford Hall in 1681. He is buried in St. James' church, Picadilly.

I've been a bit hard on Cotton's poetic talents; another verse serves as his best epitaph:

'Tis contenation that alone
Can make us happy here below,
And when this little life is gone,
Will lift us up the Heav'n too.

Who from the busy world retires,
To be more useful to it still,
And to no greater good aspires,
But only the eschewing ill.

Who with his angle and his books,
Can think the longest day well spent,
And praises God when back he looks,
And finds that all was innocent.

Untrodden paths are then the best,
Where the frequented seems unsure,
And he comes soonest to his rest,
Whose journey has been most secure.


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