In his introduction to a selection of verse and prose by John Betjeman, Slick but not Streamlined (1947), W. H. Auden attempted to define ‘topophilia’, a particular kind of attachment to landscape and environment which, he said, suffused Betjeman’s writings. ‘Topophilia’, he wrote, has little in common with nature love. Wild or unhumanised nature holds no charms for the average topophil because it is lacking in history; (the exception which proves the rule is the geological topophil). At the same time, though history manifested by objects is essential, the quantity of the history and the quality of the object are irrelevant; a branch railroad is as valuable as a Roman wall, a neo-Tudor teashop as interesting as a Gothic cathedral. Auden regrets (disingenuously, perhaps) that he himself is ‘too short-sighted, too much of a Thinking Type, to attempt this sort of poetry, which requires a strongly visual imagination’. It is a particular brand of literary topophilia, typified by Betjeman, that Auden discusses; but broadly defined it is a far more widespread sensibility in British culture. Requiring not only a visual imagination, but also a wilfully parochial outlook and a reluctance to engage with the homogenizing forces of urban modernity, a topophilia of one sort or another was characteristic of a whole generation of artists and writers in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. This topophilia is not the same as a love of the countryside, as Auden points out, although that is what it might sometimes be mistaken for. What unites these ‘topophils’ is an interest, sometimes amounting to an obsession, with local landscapes marked by time, places where the past is tangible. For some, such as Betjeman, John Piper, and Geoffrey Grigson, this topophilia—as Auden suggests— is eclectic, including medieval churches, Gothic and mock Gothic architecture, Regency terraces and ancient sites. Some topophils of this generation, such as Paul Nash with his fascination with the genius loci, made atmospheric prehistoric landscapes a particular focus. Others, like painter Graham Sutherland, were attracted towards scarred nature and geological vistas. In the Four Quartets T. S. Eliot looked for redemption and history in an English village: ‘History is now and England’.
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