The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 480 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “First Fight. Then Fiddle” Brooks takes liberties with the traditional sonnet form. The rhyme scheme of the poem reflects the influence of the Shakespearean sonnet—three quatrains, abba, abba, cddc, followed by a rhyming couplet, ee. However, in the development of thought, it follows the Petrarchan model of structuring the poem in an octave—an eight line stanza—followed by a sestet—a six-line stanza. The first eight lines, after the initial imperatives, picture the lives of artists, and the next six lines advocate fighting the war against discrimination or tyranny in order to create an environment safe enough for nurturing art.

Formal devices, such as meter, diction, and imagery create a distinctive mood in the poem. The superb control of rhythm and language makes the sonnet tremendously appealing. Here again, Brooks departs frequently from the customarily used iambic meter to create the desired effect. For instance, she uses two accented syllables “First Fight” and then again in line twelve, “Win war” for emphasis “First fight. Then fiddle” is followed by a soft “then” leading to a string of alliteration— “slipping string”— and repetition of vowel sounds “feathery sorcery.” “Bewitch, bewilder” follow next. The repeated use of alliteration and assonance underlines the musicality of the poem—almost like playing of the violin. In addition, Brooks also uses frequent enjambments—ending sentences in...

(The entire section is 471 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Bryant, Jacqueline, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha”: A Critical Collection. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

Madhubuti, Haki R., ed. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Washington, Mary Helen. “Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha.” In The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.