Soon after I became a United States citizen, I picked up a collection of poems by Sir John Betjeman, Britain's poet laureate. I had purchased the book in New York many years earlier, during a particularly fierce period of nostalgia for my native country.
For many years, an intense battle had been going on in me. Did I want to remain in America, or should I return to my native land? I had not left England in bitterness, or under persecution; in fact I had left with warm feelings for the land that had nurtured me through most of my lifetime. The England I cherished was an England of ancient oaks and hidden history, and a contented land, almost complacent with its contribution to the world. The United States on the other hand, was a land of strung wires, concrete strips, and fast food; discovering, in its post-adolescence, that the world could not be as it thought it should be.
In the midst of my battle, John Betjeman deliberately thrust his terribly anglophilic view into my thought, saying: Do you really remember England as ancient oaks and hidden history?
I read Betjeman for the same reason an American in some remote country might read Melville or Hemingway; not for the art of the writing itself, but because of the intense national feeling contained in the pages.
I saw that his protest was the protest of the true romantic against the false or the sentimentally romantic.
Betjeman's book of poems became a reference work for a living past. It underscored my period of great decision; to turn away from the old country with its familiar ways and comforting embraces to the new country with its yet-to-be tested ambivalences.
For a while I thought that my occasional forays into his poems were pandering to some remnants of my once intense feeling for the England of the small, the local, and the kindly. It took me a long time to realize Betjeman is much more than that.
John Betjeman is not considered a ''natural'' poet. He feels that, left alone , nature is perfectly capable of caring for itself - that it is the works of man which need constant attention. For him, a fallen, rotting oak becomes part of the ongoing sequence of the natural order of things, whereas a neglected crumbling building is an eyesore and a reminder of society's inability to keep its own structures useful and ''alive.''
His landscapes, like the artists' who put their vision on canvas, are strung out in his lines in a manner that hints at calculated risk.
He doesn't focus on people, but on the everyday environs which people build for themselves: houses, streetlamps, churches, and meeting halls. The character of the builders shows through their architectural masterpieces and humble structures ''bright with ironwork and glass.''
This sense of location and place, so varied and yet so tender, has led critics to type Betjeman as a poet more concerned with objects than with people, yet nothing he portrays can be appreciated without the knowledge that people belong in these places.
What he hated so passionately were the cold calculations of the engineer in the Town Hall, and the planner. He saw clearly the armada of semi-detached houses that would sail across the open fields around English cities, and he began to warn England of the consequences. With an almost Orwellian touch, he signals the coming invasion in ''The Planster's Vision'':
I have a Vision of The Future, chum, The workers' flats in fields of soya beans Tower up like silver pencils, score on score: And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come From microphones in communal canteens ''No Right! No Wrong! All's perfect, evermore.''
Betjeman's unique feel for the city makes him an arresting but lonely figure in modern poetry.
Like me, John Betjeman detested the despoliation of the city by both planner and vandal. He felt that vandalism lent itself well to the vulgarity of modern life. His abhorrence spills over when he writes of the newly created suburbs that sprang up after World War II.
He could not support the modern architects' dream of garden cities, planned houses, planned streets, planned paintwork. He felt that men were able to find a happy medium between their natural instincts and their spiritual progress without any help. Lean too much one way, and you have matchbox buildings, too much the other and you have mock Gothic, mock Tudor and false ecclesiasticism.
Often typed as a poet of the suburbs, Betjeman nevertheless shows a remarkable taste for quiet country churches, hidden villages, and remote moors, about which he can be deeply stirring. His sense of place ranges from cavernous London railway termini to tiny country stations; from England's bustling High Streets to Sundays in Ireland. I could not have loved the Essex countryside more , when he wrote: Like streams the little by-roads run Through oats and barley round a hill To where blue willows catch the sun By some white weather-boarded mill . . . .
Remarkably, people are included in this sense of place, but always as a part of the total scene. One always knows that there are people in the locations he writes about, and so one sees the human characteristics through the structures he so tellingly portrays.
John Betjeman seems to be more of a reference to the English scene than an observer who actually describes it. One gets the impression that, whereas Tennyson wrote gloriously about ''The Charge of the Light Brigade,'' Betjeman provides the background of the more ordinary participants in that inglorious episode. He is more a recorder than an intense surveyor of English mores and fashions. He does not have the mysticism or morbidity of a D. H. Lawrence, or the peering intellectualism of a G. K. Chesterton. Neither does he sink into romanticizing about Robin Hood or Captain Morgan. His heroes stride the sidewalks of London, and chat pleasantly in the inns of village life. Having the true poet's knack of registering impressions wherever he is, he is able to absorb and set down in words what separates the ordinary man from the poet, for Betjeman feels that it is the poet and not the ordinary man who brings such scenes to life, although I think that he believes that the ordinary man is somehow more articulate than the poet.
Whether writing about highways or hedgerows, John Betjeman comfortably weaves his descriptive thread. John Sparrow, who wrote a preface to an earlier volume of Betjeman's, recalls that ''There is a great variety of landscape in his poems; unlike most pastoral poets, each of whom has his own special rural scene - Crabbe on the Suffolk coast, Cowper on the banks of the Ouse, Barnes among the farms of Dorsetshire - this poet is equally at home in the most diverse surroundings.''
Because Betjeman was a landscape poet, rather than a strictly nature or strictly urban poet, he seems not to be content with writing about a tree, for instance, but prefers to stress the location of the tree. His trees are not just elms, or oaks, but conifers with roots in the red sand of Camberley, or forsythia bushes in Banbury Road. It was this sense of place, so varied and yet so intensely compassionate to the surroundings, that seemed to concentrate my need for a sense of the England that I had left many years before. John Betjeman doesn't just write about the past. His poetry serves the same function as a painting. It does not tell us that it's a work of art in itself, but reminds us of our achievements, and how easily we can forget that what we create needs our care and attention to remain a creative force in our lives.
His poetry is more important today than before. Now, as we see the cold calculations of a computer take form in our cities, and non-human habitations demanding more and more of Betjeman's precious landscapes in the form of electricity towers, substations, bridges, highways, chemical dumps, we can appreciate John Betjeman's gentle attempts to remind us that one's home is more than his castle: it is the expression of his art. He is not interested in churches becoming museums or national monuments, but testimonials to the living God.
I see now that what I missed in Britain, I miss in America also. And what is unique about England is unique here in America. I think Betjeman was trying to tell us that more and more of what we naturally love and appreciate is in great danger of being ''preserved'' until the whole country becomes one vast museum. I think he was trying to warn us not to allow our cities, our towns, and our villages to become isolated in the manner of a bird sanctuary or a wildlife preserve. Surely, he is saying, we can organize ourselves better than that!
In Betjeman's gentle protest at the destruction of our imagination, and thereby our artistic sense, he reminds us that our environment is more than bricks and mortar, or even just trees. He is more concerned with history as it is lived rather than made. He tells us that there is a wonderful mystery in the common and human all around us. For this alone, I can be grateful.