It's easy to see yesterday's radical young poet in today's charming man of letters. The tumbled white mane, the comfortably rumpled sweater and jacket, the penetrating blue eyes and gentle laughter all flash to mind a portrait of the Oxford undergraduate who used to call himself a socialist and pacifist in the hopes of stirring up a bit of dialogue and controversy.
You expect Stephen Spender to be concerned with the issues of the day, and he doesn't disappoint. But always in his thoughtful comments are reminders of the artist's need to explore a subject from many angles, to examine it in different lights.
Talking about the antinuclear movement, for example, he says: ''I really don't know what to think about it. If you're a protester, it's awfully easy to become hypnotized by the thing you're protesting about, like a bird that's hypnotized by a rattlesnake. But I rather wish that (the debate about) nuclear disarmament went a bit deeper into the causes of war.''
As lyric poet and essayist, skeptical critic and journalist, Spender has chronicled the literary and political history of half a century. Contemporary and friend of Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, he is counted among the leaders of the so-called ''new'' English poetry.
Like his poetry, his prose is memorable for its sharp vignettes and concrete imagery, and some of his most interesting writing has been his reports of postwar travels in Germany and Israel. One critic cites the ''element of wander literature'' in his discerning travelogues, and a reviewer writing in the New Yorker offers: ''It is a virtue in Spender that he has moved steadily toward a controlled expression of the romantic spirit and has continued to find subjects . . . entirely suited to his gifts.''
Two years ago Mr. Spender found such a subject in the world's most populous country. With artist David Hockney he spent three weeks in China, traveling more than 4,000 miles, interviewing artists and poets, and emerging with a characteristically colorful portrait of that country in the recently published ''China Diary'' (Abrams, New York), illustrated by Mr. Hockney.
''When one travels to a country like that, one has to remember that the whole time one is being kind of manipulated,'' he says softly. ''I mean, people often go to these countries, and they are shown things by officials and they see a lot of smiling faces and sometimes they meet rather important people and they mention having a completely open conversation with them - and they come back and write awfully stupid things. I tried to be on guard about that.''
China, Mr. Spender observes, is not a superpower because of its armaments but because of its billion people, and they are the focus of this very personal book. Street scenes impress him most, and he's happiest when he's caught in a traffic jam of carts and bicycles on a crowded country road where the pane of glass that so often separates the tourists from the masses ''seemed to have gone and for a few minutes we were merely looking at one another.''
Although three-fourths of China is off-limits to visiting foreigners, Mr. Spender made the most of the contacts he was permitted. When he was introduced to the staff of the officially sanctioned Poetry Magazine, he not only responded to their curiosity about Western poetry but also asked some probing questions of his own: What were their aims in writing poetry? What was their attitude toward the expression of their feelings in poetry? What had happened to poets during the Cultural Revolution?
The answers he got convinced Mr. Spender that, while there was a desire for a genuine exchange of ideas, there also was great restraint and wariness. ''I think the thing to remember is that the Chinese we met were friendly and extremely polite, and I think that up to a point they tried to be perfectly candid,'' he says. ''But there's a very definite point at which they shut up.''
He learned, for example, that poets now are allowed to write about nature, the countryside, rivers, landscapes, love, and friendship - all taboo subjects during the period of the now-notorious ''gang of four.''
''But if they tell you they're allowed to write about nature, it still implies that they aren't allowed to write about a lot of other things,'' Mr. Spender says. ''When the state allows you to do something, it still is a sort of variant on forbidding, . . . because they might withdraw that permission to write.''
Mr. Spender often was appalled by government policy for the arts: Only a handful of art students are sent abroad each year to study, in contrast to the thousands of science students who receive scholarships annually. The state employs all artists and pays them a standard salary, regardless of output or talent.
At the same time, he delighted in some of the foibles of officialdom: On a visit to a rebuilt temple in Hangzhou, he learned that when a museum begins to attract a lot of visitors, a replica museum with replica exhibits is built to accommodate the overflow crowd. On a visit to a lacquer factory in the same city , he was told that there was no policy for correcting craftsmen's mistakes, since no one ever made mistakes.
His encounters with ordinary Chinese, however brief, are at the heart of Stephen Spender's book, and he says that he's still at work on one poem that came out of a chance meeting in Canton, where he was surprised one day to be confronted by a beggar. ''The point is that in our part of the world beggars do exist, which is perhaps a disgrace, but it's even worse to be a beggar in a country where they're supposed to be abolished. It's like something you oughtn't to see or smell or notice.''
Will his approach to this poem be any different from his work in the past?
''The thing about poems is that it's so very difficult to talk about them,'' he muses. ''If someone asks, 'Well, what poems are you writing?' the answer is, 'I'm trying to find out by writing them.' ''