Analysis of Philip Larkin's "For Sidney Bechet"

Analysis of Philip Larkin's For Sidney Bechet

Philip Larkin had a deep passion for jazz music, which had been fostered from childhood by his parents, who purchases both a drum kit and a saxophone. Between 1961 and 1971, Larkin served as the jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph. Larkin wanted was a huge fan of Sidney Bechet, who was an American jazz clarinetist and saxophonist. Bechet was born in New Orleans, and spent his teen years playing in dance halls and brothels in Storyville. In "For Sidney Bechet," Larkin wanted the poem to function like a jazz song; as the song/poem progresses the listener/reader imagines different scenarios. The poem had a jazz-like rhythm, and a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefghggh. "For Sidney Bechet" was written in 1954, and published in Larkin's collection of thirty-poems entitled The Whitsun Weddings, which was published in 1964.

The first stanza sets up the poem as a cause and effect; the music causes people to imagine different scenarios. The musical note, that Bechet is playing, narrows and rises causing New Orleans reflection in the water to shake (ripples). This is a beautiful simile. The verb "shakes" is put at the end of line one, in order to stretch the action onto the second line. "And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes" meaning that the audience gets lost in the music, and drifts off into various day-dreams. "Wakes" stems from the word 'awaken,' but it also a pun on water-a wake is the track left by a ship in the water-which keeps with the water theme of the first stanza.

The first imagined scenario (lines 3 to 6) is one of beauty and love. Some people imagine the "legendary Quarter," which refers to the French Quarter. The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, and is now a National Historic Landmark. They also imagine balconies, flower-baskets, and quadrilles, which are square dances for couples. Everyone is "making love" and "going shares," which means taking it easy. This first scenario seems very relaxing and fun.
The second scenario that is imagined (lines 7 to 10) is about the dark, seedy side of New Orleans. "Oh, play that thing!" is a common cry that you would hear at a jazz concert; it means the audience is particularly moved by a part of the song. "Mute glorious Storyvilles" means that the music mutes out the sounds of Storyville and has the audience "grouping round their chairs." Storyville is the red-light district of New Orleans, and is often referred to just as the District. It was set up to limit prostitution to just one area, so that the government could monitor and regulate it. "License" refers to the government giving prostitutes the permission to engage is prostitution. "Sporting-house girls" is another term for prostitutes. The simile: "sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced far above rubies)" refers to the Proverbs 31.10 of the King James Bible, which states: "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies." Comparing a prostitute to a circus tiger is the equivalent of saying that the prostitute is now tame due to the fact that they are controlled by government regulations; whereas, before the governments interference they were wild, dangerous, and erotic creatures. "Priced far above rubies" can also mean that the prostitutes were very expensive.
The fourth stanza describes the wannabes, who sit in the audience. "Manqués" are would-be scholars. They sit in the audience nodding along with the music, unnoticed. Larkin uses another simile to describe the wannabes: they are so engrossed with the "personnels," which are the band members that they are like "old plaids." Plaids are a rectangular length of tartan worn especially over the left shoulder as part of the Scottish national costume.

Stanza five (lines 13 to 15) describes how the music affects Larkin himself. We know that Larkin is talking about himself because he uses the two personal pronouns: "me" and "my." The music makes him feel the way love is said to make people feel. The music "is orgasmic, hitting all the right notes, and [gives] a sense of affirmation" (Level Up). "Crescent City" refers to New Orleans. Larkin says that New Orleans is the only place where Bechet's "speech" (meaning his music) is understood, because New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz.

The last two lines of the poem are abstract. Bechet's music is "the natural noise of good," which scatters "long-haired grief and scored pity" (lines 16-17). Listening to Bechet's music and sharing or "scattering" it with others somehow dispels the long-harbored grief that African Americans feel. The origin of Jazz comes from African music, which consisted of a single-line melody and a call-and-response pattern. When slaves were brought to America they brought with them the work songs of their people, which coupled with European instruments became jazz music. "Scored pity" is a pun on a musical score. It also refers to the pity we feel when listening to Sidney Bechet's music.


Ferguson, Margaret, ed. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2005.

Level Up:
French Quarter: Wikipedia contributors. "French Quarter." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Storyville, New Orleans: Wikipedia contributors. "Storyville." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Brothel: Wikipedia contributors. "Brothel." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Jazz: Wikipedia contributors. "Jazz." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.

Philip Larkin: Wikipedia contributors. "Philip Larkin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

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