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Robert Matz
Sample Essay
English 201.025

"Hurting Love": Reckoning Poetry's Costs In Gwendolyn Brooks' "First Fight. Then Fiddle."

Gwendolyn Brooks' "First fight. Then Fiddle." initially seems to argue for the necessity of brutal war in order to create a space for the pursuit of beautiful art. The poem is more complex, however, because it also implies both that war cannot protect art and that art should not justify war. Yet if Brooks seems, paradoxically, to argue against art within a work of art, she does so in order create an artwork that by its very recognition of art's costs would justify itself.

Brooks initially seems to argue for the necessity of war in order to create a safe space for artistic creation. She suggests this idea quite forcefully in the paired short sentences that open the poem: "First fight. Then fiddle." One must fight before fiddling for two reasons. First, playing the violin would be a foolish distraction if an enemy were threatening one's safety; it would be, as the phrase goes, "fiddling while Rome burns." Second, fighting the war first would prepare a safe and prosperous place where one could reasonably pursue the pleasures of music. One has to "civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." It should be noted further that while Brooks writes about securing a "civilized" place to play the violin, she seems clearly to be using this playing as an image for art in general, as her more expansive references to "beauty" or "harmony" suggest.

Nonetheless, much that Brooks writes about the necessity to fight before fiddling indicates the she does not support this idea, at least not fully. For example, Brooks describes making beautiful music as being "remote / A while" from "malice and murdering." In addition to the negative way Brooks describes war in this line, as murder motivated by malice, the phrase "a while" significantly qualifies the initial command to "First fight. Then fiddle." While this initial command seems to promise that one will only have to fight once in order to create a safe space for art, the phrase "a while" implies rather that this space is not really safe, because it will only last for a short time. War will begin again after "a while" because wars create enemies and fail to solve underlying conflicts. The beauty of violin playing remains illusory if it makes us forget that the problem of war has not really gone away.

Brooks suggests moreover not only that war cannot really protect art but also that art is not really a just excuse for war. Indeed, she implies that art might be responsible for war's unjust brutality toward others. This idea is most evident in the poem's final sentence: "Rise bloody, maybe not too late / For having first to civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." Though on first read it seems like this sentence repeats the warning to fight before it is "too late," its language has a number of negative connotations that undercut this exhortation. "Civilize" might at first seem a laudable goal, but it is also hard not to hear in this word all the atrocities that have been committed because one group believed another group needed "civilizing" or lacked civility. Moreover, if war inherently makes even "civilized" people uncivil because of its brutality, war's final achievement in the poem--"a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace"--seems heavily ironic. "Grace" can suggest a valuable beauty or refinement, but also more superficial manners. And this possibility of merely superficial refinement, blind to the violence and even injustice committed in its name, is especially suggested by the image of having to "rise bloody." The artist playing his violin so gracefully also has blood on his hands. The first hypothesis of the poem, that one can fight and then fiddle--that is, that once can fight and put the war out of one's mind by playing beautiful music--has been replaced by a recognition that one cannot deny the violence that made beauty possible. For at a minimum war continually threatens this beauty. Even worse, this war has perhaps been unjustly waged with the protection or promotion of "civilized" beauty as its excuse.

This conclusion is striking since violin playing in the poem seems not only to provide a metaphor for artistic creation generally, but also writing poetry in particular. For by its heavy use of alliteration, assonance and consonance, the poem emphasizes its own musicality, as if it were like a violin being played. In just the poem's initial line "first" "fight" "fiddle" alliterate, as well as ring changes on the different sounds of the vowel "i"; "fight" and "ply" assent; and "slipping string" repeats the initial "s" and final "ing" sounds. Moreover, the sonnet itself is a very refined artistic form, easily associated with the difficulty and cultural prestige of violin playing. Indeed, as an emblem of Western civility (one thinks of Renaissance sonnets), the sonnet might be involved in the very justification of the destruction of other less "civilized" peoples that the poem condemns.

One might wonder why Brooks produces poetry, especially the sonnet, if she also condemns it. I would suggest that by critically reckoning the costs of sonnet-making Brooks brings to her poetry a self-awareness that might justify it after all. She creates a poetry that, like the violin playing she invokes, sounds with "hurting love." This "hurting love" reminds us of those who may have been hurt in the name of the love for poetry. But in giving recognition to that hurt, it also fulfills a promise of poetry: to be more than a superficial social "grace," to teach us something we first did not, or did not wish to, see.