The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

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Gwendolyn Brooks’s “First Fight. Then Fiddle” is a sonnet that advocates the use of militancy to make the environment safe for art to flourish. The poem is the fourth sonnet in the sequence “children of the poor” in the “The Womanhood” section of Annie Allen (1949) and uses the persona of a black mother whose meditations on her fears, concerns, and hopes about her children lead to, in the poet’s own words, “preachments” to negotiate the pitfalls and dead ends they would face. “First Fight. Then Fiddle” can be better understood when discussed in the context of sonnets that precede it. The second sonnet of the sequence raises a question, “What shall I give my children? who are poor” and is followed by “And shall I prime my children, pray, to pray?” Finding solace in religion or faith, thus, is one possible alternative for the children. “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” the fourth sonnet, then presents another option, a resorting to violence for self-preservation.

“First Fight. Then Fiddle” begins with the speaker commanding aspiring musicians, ostensibly her children, to prepare to fight before turning to their fiddle. The fiddle is, in fact, the metaphor for all art, and the poem is an expression of the speaker’s proffered solution to the dangers faced by African Americans during the period of rigid segregation. The lines that follow the two short imperative statements “First fight. Then fiddle” depict what the aspiring artists can expect —a life of working incessantly, muzzling their hurt, and playing the masterpieces. Softened with silky effects and sweetened with honey, music would have to be an integral part of their disciplined lives. In a life devoted to music, according to the speaker, there is no room for unpleasantness—“no salt, no hempen thing.” They would need to rise above the malice of their surroundings and quell the repeated temptation to avenge themselves.

However, the next stanza shifts its focus away from the portrayal of a life of industry and tranquility required of an artist. Art cannot serve as an escape from reality. The speaker announces that before such a life of dedication and devotion to art can be pursued, the aspirants would have to arm themselves, thus reverting to the idea of fighting presented in the first line. The reality of the world would demand that in order to win the war, they use “hate” as their armor and make themselves oblivious to the infinite beauty of the world of art. Understandably, they would be bloodied by the confrontation but, according to the speaker, it is imperative that they tame the world into accepting them. Only a civilized world would provide them an opportunity to play their violin “with grace.”

“First Fight. Then Fiddle,” in short, dwells on the need for total devotion to art and at the same time the necessity of fighting for a just world.