Let's have a look. The first discovery, for me, is how very little Larkin thought of his early work. "Frightful clangers," "complete rubbish," "There are some pieces in the book I hate very much indeed." Such was the tone of his maturer thoughts upon the poems in 1945's The North Ship, a volume he considered to be morbidly in the debt of W.B. Yeats: "I spent the next three years trying to write like Yeats, not because I liked his personality or understood his ideas but out of infatuation with his music." Infatuated or not, Yeats-damaged or not, the Larkin of The North Ship is rushing with ecstasies all his own: "The horns of the morning/Are blowing, are shining/The meadows are bright/ With the coldest dew. . . . " Too much? I love this stuff: it's Eden-sharp, Eden-tingly, with a virginal clarity of perception that Larkin could never quite get rid of, attack it as he might with pornography and amber fluids.
Life did him in, unquestionably. In slow motion, too: loneliness, failure, all of that. Burnett's annotations and quotations track this process diligently. The commentary on "Born Yesterday," a poem to celebrate the birth of Kingsley's daughter, includes these lines from a 1965 letter: "I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren't beautiful or lucky. . . . who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called 'big' experiences of life are going to miss them." About The End — death, that is — he was terribly longsighted, contemplating its approach from decades off through his Eric Morecambe glasses, until their lenses were completely filled with it. "At death, you break up: the bits that were you/Start speeding away from each other for ever/With no one to see. . . . " And always, with Larkin, almost mystically, this pressing apprehension of vacancy — bright and glorious, heavenly even, but with nothing in it. An ether of meaninglessness that saluted him through windows or hovered above the horizon: "the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless."
It's a fascinating book, this. Thanks to Burnett, I now know that Larkin originally wanted the line "knock my darling off her unpriceable pivot" (from "If, My Darling") to read "unprintable pivot" — but that Kingsley Amis veto'd this. "Unprintable pivot" (wrote Kingsley to Philip) "sets the reader wondering whether the phrase as a whole may not mean c---t." Burnett's note on "Deceptions" ("All the unhurried day/Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives. . . . ") does not include the datum that this was one of Margaret Thatcher's favorite poems. Did I make that up? Maybe it's apocryphal. Nor, in his comments on "I Remember, I Remember," does Burnett make the comparison — which I would have thought was self-evident — to Edward Thomas's "Adlestrop." But this is just me trying feebly to one-up him. The Complete Poems is an extraordinary job, even if it contains not a single reference to "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight." All together now: "They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs/ And too many right wing meetings."