‘For Sidney Bechet’ is a prolific piece on the musical mastery of Sidney Bechet, one of the early jazz innovators. Bechet was a popular saxophonist and clarinetist. His musical career spanned throughout the first half of the 20th century. This poem by Philip Larkin is a tribute to the jazz maestro and how his cascading music, which was often heard in New Orleans, his hometown, took the listeners (including Larkin) into a state of trance.
Explore For Sidney Bechet
‘For Sidney Bechet’ by Philip Larkin is addressed to Sidney Bechet with particular emphasis on his music.
The poem begins with a request from the poet to play a note that could trigger a state of falsehood in the minds of listeners. In order to set the scene, Larkin introduces the images from a New Orleans concert hall where people gathered to listen to his music. Bechet, in his familiar style, is seen to set the scene and make people go about in the way they want. There are references to Storyville, a red-light district in New Orleans active during the early 20th century; the sporting-house girls thronging the place to get the highest bid of the night; scholars failed to fulfill their dream in music. By zooming out, Larkin expresses his heart’s delight while listening to Bechet’s “natural noise of good” even from a distant English shore.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
Larkin’s ‘For Sidney Bechet’ is written in free verse without any set rhyme scheme or meter. The poem consists of a total of five tercets ending with a couplet. Though there is no set rhyming pattern, readers can find “shakes” in line one rhyming with “wakes” in line three. Similarly, the word “should” in line thirteen rhymes with “understood” and “good” in lines fifteen and sixteen, respectively. Apart from that, the lines of the poem imitate the cascading flow of Bechet’s music. Larkin uses an elevating tone in order to address Bechet directly in his poem, referring to him as “you.”
There are a number of literary devices used in ‘For Sidney Bechet’ that include:
- Simile: Larkin begins the poem with a direct comparison between a note by Bechet, possibly vibrato, and the reflection of New Orleans on the water. In the third tercet, Larkin compares the sporting-house girls to tigers.
- Enjambment: This device is used to add cadence to this piece. Some sentences are cut short in the middle like “That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes” and are continued in the following line: “Like New Orleans reflected on the water.”
- Hyperbole: In this poem, Larkin uses elevated language to express his passion for Bechet’s music as well as to inject his sardonic humor. The use of hyperbole can be found in “Building for some a legendary Quarter,” “Mute glorious Storyvilles,” etc.
- Alliteration: The use of alliteration can be found in the following phrases: “personnels like old plaids,” “love should/ Like,” “natural noise,” etc.
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,
Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—
Philip Larkin’s poetic dedication to the 20th-century jazz master entitled ‘For Sidney Bechet’ begins directly with an impassioned address. The poetic persona or the lyrical first-person speaker representing Larkin himself urges Bechet to play “That note.” This specific note, in musical terms known as vibrato, consists of rapid, slight variations in pitch while playing any musical instrument producing a richer tone. The speaker describes how the tune narrows and rises and shakes like the reflection of Bechet’s hometown New Orleans on the water. By creating such a tune, Bechet encapsulates the listeners in a state of appropriate falsehood—a dream-like state.
The second tercet presents a description of the place where Bechet performed. It seems as if Bechet himself sets the scene in order to perform his piece. It is not the organizers but the performer who keeps things in order with his rich notes and cascading rhythm. Larkin describes how the audience fills the quarter of balconies. There are flower baskets and quadrille performers in the hall. People are going about their usual ways. Some of them make love, and some find partners to spend the musical night with.
Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.
In the third tercet, Larkin’s persona in the familiar style urges Bechet to play his piece by using a rhetorical exclamation. He asks Bechet to mute the quarters of Storyville, an early 20th-century red-light district of New Orleans. Ironically, he expresses his concern for the regulated prostitution in the mentioned district with the phrase, “Others mag license.” The girls from Storyville are described as “Sporting-house girls,” who gather around their chairs. They are like “tigers,” fixating their eyes on their respective customers.
The next tercet is connected with the last line of the previous tercet. In the first line of this tercet, Larkin uses a biblical allusion. The phrase “priced/ Far above rubies” placed in brackets in the manner of a dramatic aside is an allusion to Proverbs 31.10: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” It means the sporting-house girl’s purity is far above rubies. This is a kind of overstatement that injects dark humor into the poem.
The girls pretend that they are interested in Bechet’s music, but they are present to pick the highest bidder of the night. There are some failed scholars who nod around unnoticed. They are wrapped up in the list of performers. By using a simile, Larkin describes them as old plaids or garments that are out of fashion.
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.
In the fifth tercet, Larkin returns to the appreciation of Sidney Bechet’s music. His unique voice falls on the poet as the sound of love. One cannot express what love sounds like. Love has no specific tone or color. It is an expression that can only be felt through the senses. Bechet’s music has the ring of love, the color of passion, and the tinge of devotion. It is described as an “enormous yes” or truth.
By adding the epithet of “My Crescent City” to New Orleans, Larkin elevates the city and the jazz maestro Sidney Bechet. This is the city where his voice alone is heard and understood. It is his unique “speech,” tinged with native African-American variations, that his ardent listeners appreciate the most. Larkin greets his music as something natural, like the babbling noise of a perennial river or the wind blowing over a desolate desert. It is the sound of goodness. His music reflects a sense of pain and pity. The last line can also be interpreted as an allusion to Bechet’s life and struggles.
Philip Larkin’s poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’ is a poetic tribute to one of the early jazz innovators and influential musicians, Sidney Bechet hailing from New Orleans. Bechet was a jazz composer, clarinetist, and saxophonist, famous for his solo pieces. This piece presents one of the performances by Bechet in his hometown New Orleans and the mesmerizing attribute of his tune.
Larkin penned this piece in January 1954 and published it in his best-known collection of poetry The Whitsun Weddings in the year 1964. This poem reveals Larkin’s taste for jazz music produced during the war period.
The main theme of this poem is the ability of music to connect people from all walks of life. The other themes of this poem include art, jazz, city life, and aesthetics.
It is a free-verse lyrical piece written as a form of tribute to 20th-century jazz soloist and composer Sidney Bechet. The poem is composed of a series of interconnected tercets ending with a couplet. Larkin uses the second-person pronoun “you” in order to address Bechet directly in his poem.
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