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Brainstorming on "First Fight. Then Fiddle."
Below is the brainstorming I did for this paper, which led then to an
outline. Note that the writing in the brainstorming is quite loose
and disorganized because I was trying here just to record my thoughts and
generate new ones. When I wrote my outline from the paper, I had to do
eliminate ideas that had nothing to do with the thesis I finally decided
on, as well as ideas that were relevant, but for which I did not have space.
In this case, I chose what I thought was my most persuasive evidence.
This poem literally describes the need to fight wars in order to create the peace necessary in order to make music, or more generally, art. One can't turn ones attention to the arts if the more immediate violence of war threatens, because art requires the freedom from immediate bodily harm (or the deprivation, etc. that comes with war) to pursue pleasure or thought. After the initial short description of this idea--first fight. then fiddle--Brooks describes in the first part of the poem beautiful music playing, and in the second part of the poem recalls again the need to first be "deaf to music" in order to "civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace."
The poem itself is very musical in the exposition of this idea. It's filled with assonance, alliteration and consonance, e.g. "first fight fiddle,"; "fight ply" or "music beauty" or "bewitch, bewilder." The poem is also in the form of a sonnet, and this seems important in the same way in that the sonnet is a very refined, crafted form, difficult to do and associated with elite culture, just like violin playing. So if this poem is about music, music also seems to be a metaphor for Brooks' own writing of poems.
The first part of the poem emphasizes the subtle beauty of playing music in phrases like "feathery sorcery" (these two three-syllable words ending in "y" themselves sound light and "feathery") and the idea that the music should "bewitch bewilder." "Hurting love" also suggests the passion of the music, but it is a much more evocative phrase that also suggests how the context of war hangs over the poem. "Hurting" is what had to happen for the musician to enjoy (or "love") his instrument, and that ominous resonance also suggests the way that "sorcery," "bewitch" and "bewilder" are also ominous words, suggesting witchcraft and confusion (the latter also associated with war). The poem continues to emphasize the idea of playing refined music, contrasting "salt" and coarse rope (hempen things) with beautiful, slow, expensive silks and honey.
It is interesting to note thought that all of this takes the form of a set of commands: ply, bewitch, qualify, devise, be remote, etc. This is odd because it seems like one wouldn't need to be commanded to do something so pleasurable. That is, one might have to be commanded to "fight"--the first command in the series--but this really isn't parallel to being commanded, say, to "ply" the violin, which unlike fighting one would presumably wish to do and so would not need to be commanded. Making both war and music playing all commands creates a nice parallelism, but it still seems odd to me: why not "first fight so that you can fiddle," e.g. The command form the verbs, of ply, etc., has two effects: first it potentially distances the commander from the action commanded (I'm not going to do that, you do it); and second it indicates resistance to the action (which hence must be commanded. This seems odd, since, again, playing beautiful music would be something one would think the poet would not want to register any resistance to).
The words "salt" and "hempen thing" are also interestingly chosen in that they might themselves suggest war, in the idea of salting an enemy's fields so nothing will grow, and also in the presence of ropes in war, especially if this is a medieval war, as suggested later by "armor."
There is another qualification of the pleasure of music-making in the phrase "be remote / A while from malice and from murdering." The first working out of the command to "first fight. then fiddle" suggests that you have to do this only once. But the "a while" suggests the war will have to happen again. I wonder if this go back to the sense that even the beautiful music made after the war still recalls the hurt or bewilderment of war. Further, it might be that the beautiful music unconsciously registers that you can't just put violence behind you, and forget about it. Wars have victims; people defeated in war want revenge. Wars don't solve the problems that create war.
Why the striking short phrase "win war"? There seem to me two possibilities here. The brevity of the phrase could connote the decisiveness of the command: this is what you must do, no ifs, ands or buts. Or it could be registering a kind of mindlessness--like a "caveman-speak" of short, barely articulate one-syllable words ("win war" then opposes the paired three-syllable words, "feathery sorcery.").
The last three lines are syntactically very difficult. They could mean something like "get up with your mind on blood and before it's too late civilize some place where you can then play graceful music on your violin"; or they could mean "get up with blood on your hands (i.e. the battle has already been fought), perhaps not so delayed by this battle ("maybe not so late") that you can't still have time to play graceful music on your violin." I thought at first that the first paraphrase was correct, but now I lean toward the second, since it makes more sense of "for having first" (in line 11) to mean "because you first had to..." But this second paraphrase is more disturbing than the first because it means the war has already taken place--you are not rising with the anticipation of blood, but after the war, with blood on your hands--and that's how you are playing the violin.
In this sense, the poem really develops from the too simple "first fight. then fiddle." which says war is necessary for beauty, but also separates war and beauty quite simply. First you do x, then y. As the poem continues, the poet more and more suggests that fighting and fiddling can't be so separated, so that finally the violin is being played with bloody hands. This ideas connects with the way the poem keeps coming back to war. You'd think that the first part of the poem would be about war (first fight) and the second part of the poem would be about beautiful violin playing (then fiddle). But it doesn't quite work that way, since after the initial command to fight then fiddle, the poet inverts their order, describing fiddling first in lines 1-8 and then coming back to the war, second, in lines 9-13. It's as if (as in the phrase "a while"), Brooks is suggesting that war can't so easily be put out of the way.
Also ominous in the last couple of lines is the verb "civilize." While initially the connotations of the verb "civilize" seem positive (we are "civilized" people), it's hard not to think as well of all the populations that have been killed in the name of the progress of "civilization" or peoples who have been killed because they were not "civilized." Also, the final word "grace"--though again generally positive--also has the connotation of the trivial: "graces" are like good manners--nice but superficial. Particularly coming after the phrase "rise bloody" it doesn't seem enough. As if all you're going to get from this war are some superficial "graces."
This idea, finally, would fit with the equation between music and poetry, particularly the sonnet, which is a highly refined, "graceful" and hence "civilized" form. A couple of ideas come to mind. First, the sonnet can also seem like a kind of trivial form: why bother to get everything into fourteen lines, etc.? Is all the fighting worth it? It this triviality a way of forgetting about the fact of violence (keep yourself bewitched with subtle poetic forms so you forget what you had to do to free the time/space for poetic play)? Is it even possible that the sonnet is part of the violence of "civility" against those who are uncivilized? At the same time, this argument seems a little too easy and one-sided to me. This sonnet in its artfulness and thoughtfulness is itself of value: I wouldn't call it trivial. So could we say rather that the poet is deepening the value of the sonnet by seriously reckoning its costs, how many people must suffer to give us the time and the space to write or read poetry? And also that at least it is better to have fighting and poetry, then just fighting?
Why does the poem first refer to a "fiddle," which connotes a folk instrument, then to a violin, which connotes high culture, an instrument used in classical music?