BG. Arthur Davison Ficke and Japan

    The knowledge of Japanese subjects that informs Ficke’s poems does not save them, but it does provide them a place in the historical development of the adaptation of Japanese motifs by English-language poets, and makes them an important point of reference in tracing the most conspicuous lines of interest in the poetic mediation of Japan that followed.  

Arthur Davison Ficke’s poems of Japan are hardly remembered today, but in their time they were among the most popular of the day, and were widely influential, providing models for Aiken (see BA3a), Bynner (see BE24a), Fletcher (see BH2b and 4b), Lowell (see BI4a, 7, and 20a), and many others, perhaps, considerably digested, even for Pound (see BK59, 88, and 105) and Wallace Stevens (see CA7), Ficke’s friend and classmate at Harvard. The earliest of the work appeared earlier than that of most other poets under study here, in 1907, in The Happy Princess (1). These poems and many that followed remind in their idealism and guileless sentimentality of the stylistic and conceptual excesses of nineteenth-century literary Japonisme, but with a difference. Before Lowell and Fletcher, and in contrast to virtually all earlier English poems of Japan, they bring to the verse a knowledge of the subject that sets them apart, stylistic offenses aside. The Happy Princess poems address Japanese folklore, religion, and iconography with a serious lay interest, then by 1911 Ficke was lecturing on the historical development of Japanese art (see 3), and by 1915 the publication of Chats on Japanese Prints (5) placed Ficke undeniably among the foremost American authorities on ukiyoe. At their best the Japan poems that follow The Happy Princess remain readable, as in the 1908 ‘Song of East and West’ (2), which follows Whitman’s ‘Broadway Pageant’ and Fenollosa’s ‘East and West’ (see CA1), and anticipates work by Pound and others, in its hopeful and humane proposal of a fusion of cultures East and West, or the Japan poems of An April Elegy (9), which demonstrate that in parodying the methods of the Imagists in the Spectra hoax of 1916 (see 6) Ficke also learned something of their technique. However much Ficke saw himself as a poet with an interest in ukiyoe, however, he will be remembered as an authority on ukiyoe who dabbled in poetry. The knowledge of Japanese subjects that informs the poems does not save them, though it does provide them a place in the historical development of this subject, and makes them a necessary point of reference in tracing the most conspicuous lines in the poetic interest in Japan that followed.





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