Arthur Ficke

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1940 Photo by Carl Van Vechten

Ficke, Arthur Davison (10 November 1883 - 30 November 1945)

Ficke was born in Davenport, Iowa, where his father, Charles August Ficke, was a prominent lawyer and his mother a longtime member of the Davenport Public Library school board. They were active in the Unitarian Church, which Ficke attended as a young boy. During his childhood there were frequent travels to Europe and the Orient with his family. Ficke attended Davenport High School, and first published his poetry in the high school newspaper for which he served as literary editor. In 1900 he entered Harvard where he studied with William James and George Santayana and wrote for a Harvard literary magazine.

It was at Harvard that Ficke met Witter Bynner, who would become a lifelong friend and would figure prominently in a literary hoax involving the Imagist poets the two men would engineer. The 1916 hoax satirized modernism in poetry. The work tells of a Mr. Faust who has a New Yorker working with Satan to overcome disillusionment, ending with a spiritual peace that, philosophically, is humanistic.

After graduation from Harvard, Ficke traveled with his family and then undertook two years of legal study at the University of Iowa (1906-1907), where he also taught in the English department. After his graduation he joined his father's law firm and in 1907 married Evelyn B. Blunt and published his first book, From the Isles (1907).

Ficke corresponded with various literary figures, including the attorney-poet Edgar Lee Masters, to whom he began writing in 1915. The correspondence continued until Ficke's death.

His travel's were curtailed by the war, for he entered Army service in 1917 and served as a captain in France. In 1918 he met the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and they would remain close friends for the rest of his life. Millay was clearly in love with Ficke, but it was poetry and friendship that would sustain them over the years.

Ficke received an Army assignment as a Judge Advocate in Paris, where he continued his efforts to collect Japanese prints, an interest that is reflected in his poetry. A second trip to Japan was made in 1920.

His most philosophic work is Tumultuous Shore (1942). In “An Ungodly Man,” Ficke writes ironically about an artist:

His paintings were treasured,
But he was disliked because
He cursed the church, he drank much gin,
He followed wenches by the score;
He was a man of utter sin.
Our matrons turned him from the door.
He died at last, of too much gin. . . .
We are a Christian folk; and we
Treasure, forgiving of his sin,
His pictures for posterity.

In “Prayer for a Lady,” he ends by addressing “God”:

This prayer I offer unto Thee
Aware of its futility. Full well I know
Thou canst do naught,
Being but a figment of my thought.

Ficke’s “In This Hour,” describes his humanism:

I pray you, in this hour’s confusion go
Not back again into the old belief
That all man’s life is brutish, harsh, and brief,
And that what has been, always will be so.
Earth has seen many a great hope’s overthrow
And many a noble dream go down in grief;
Yet still persists the parable of the leaf
That spring unfolds above the endless snow.
Be not too sure that evil in this hour
Has strength to make as nothing all our gain
And leave us naked to the whirlwind’s wrath.
Through earlier, darker days than these, some power
Of man, mere man, endured its night of pain,
Then strode one footstep higher up the path.

After the war, according to University of Iowa records, Ficke decided to give up the practice of law. He divorced his wife in 1922, then married Gladys Brown, a painter, in December 1923. They took up residence in New York City. In 1925 Ficke was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was treated at Saranac Lake, New York. He then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived until 1928 when he and his wife acquired a home in Hillsdale, New York.

In the 1930s Ficke would undergo further treatment for tuberculosis, but he continued to travel, write, and work with Millay on her poetry. In 1940 Ficke began a series of lectures on Japanese art in New York, but the lecture series was canceled in 1941 because of the impending war.

Ficke learned in 1943 that he had throat cancer. He died in Hudson, New York, on November 30, 1945.

{CL; The Humanist Newsletter, September-October, 1953; WAS}