BG. Arthur Davison Ficke: Primary Materials


1. The Happy Princess and Other Poems. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1907.

Ficke was twenty-four when the book appeared, recently returned from a world tour with his parents, and the familiarity with Japanese subjects suggests that their itinerary perhaps had included Japan. The noted poems appear in a section called ‘Pilgrim Verses’, which includes poems set in India, Tibet, present-day Iran, and elsewhere, but more than half of the section takes Japan as its subject. The identity of ‘the poet Yôshi’ invoked in the epigraph and three of the poems (b, e, and g) is a mystery. No poet writing under that name is remembered in Japanese literary history. Yôshi in Japanese means ‘adopted son’, and so one wonders if Ficke might have ‘adopted’ the name for himself, a la Rexroth and Marichiko (see CA14d). Likewise, given Ficke’s attention to and accuracy with diacritical marks in romanised Japanese, along with the expertise in Japanese art he shows by 1911 (see 3), we can assume that he was closely acquainted with Japanese residents in the United States, and so perhaps ‘Yôshi’ was an acquaintance or helper. In any case, the poems attributed to ‘Yôshi’ read like those Ficke claims for himself, and are altogether unlike anything in the Japanese poetic tradition. All the poems with Japanese subjects are sentimental and conventional lyrics, but their interest in and willing acceptance of Buddhism is notable for the date.


a. The Dreamers of Dzushi. A long conventionally structured poem recounting a tale of fishermen from the town of Zushi (‘Dzushi’) who are lost at sea, and the dreams of them that residents of the town are said to have. Zushi is a small city on the western coast of the Miura Peninsula in what is now Kanagawa Prefecture. Miner (A25) notes that the poem combines elements of the European myth of the sirens with the famous Japanese tale of Urashima Tarô. Includes reference to Fuji, Kamakura, and Enoshima.

b. The Beloved. Strained verse describing and idealising a ‘trembling secret maiden’, according to a note ‘after the Japanese of Yôshi’.

c. At Ise. Tells the story of a young man who after the death of his beloved sets forth on a pilgrimage to the great Shintô shrine at Ise to pray there for the woman’s rebirth; interesting in that in spite of the idealised view of Japan in this and other poems in the collection, Ficke does not have the woman return to life. The man remains at the shrine for many years, but his prayers remain unanswered. Includes reference to the Tôkaidô, and the torii (the word used in the poem) at the shrine. Generally sensitive to Shintô in the same way that the following poem and others by Ficke respond sensitively to Japanese Buddhism.

d. Muramadzu. Description of a Buddhist effigy, ‘lips . . . faintly smiling’, overlooking a graveyard; less sentimental than other poems in the collection; sympathetic to the Buddhist compassion represented by the icon. The title is obscure.

e. The Poet YÔshi. In praise of ‘Yôshi’ (see above) and ‘dedicated to his songs’. He is indeed a poet whom ‘the many shall never know’, but the identity of the ‘few’ who ‘hold [him] dear’ is not specified.

f. KÔbÔ Daishi’s Fire. Impressive in part for the accurate diacritical marks of the title, which many American writers even today would omit in a romanisation. The reference is to an eternal flame at Miyajima, attributed by legend to Kûkai (Ap), whose honorific name is the Kôbô Daishi of the title. The speaker in much of the poem is Kukai himself, warning of disaster that will be manifest as a great dragon appearing before the impious.

g. Before the Buddha. Another verse ‘from the poet Yôshi’ (see above). The speaker has ‘seen the tangled plan / Of life and death which vain desire / Weaves with an all-pervading fire / Around the weary heart of man’, and so ‘[turns] unto [the] silent ways’ of the Buddha.

h. The Wild Duck. A note identifies the subject as ‘A Japanese Frieze’, which the poem describes in conventional verse. Reprinted in 13..





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