BG. Arthur Davison Ficke

2. A Song of East and West. In The Earth Passion: Boundary, and Other Poems. Cranleigh, Surrey: Samurai, 1908.


A poem that as Miner points out (in A25) reminds of Whitman’s Broadway Pageant and Fenollosa’s East and West (see CA1), poems Ficke surely would have known. Whitman’s work had appeared in all editions of Leaves of Grass after 1860, and Fenollosa, through his collection of Japanese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and his books on ukiyoe (D10a and c), was a household name in Boston by Ficke’s tenure at Harvard. Like these earlier works, Ficke’s poem envisions a mingling of cultures, East and West, focuses particularly on Japan, and sees the United States as uniquely situated socially, politically, and geographically to bring about the anticipated and longed-for marriage of traditions. In the first of three sections the speaker imagines a ‘strange tale’ in which ‘strange aliens’ throng to the shores of the United States, but the nation has closed its doors; he goes into the streets and sees the eyes of ‘many a race’, but is told that the ‘yellow men’ must be kept out because they are ‘infidels’. In the second section a great metaphorical flame born in Europe has swept across the ocean to the New World and then across the American continent; the speaker knows that a similar flame exists in Asia, and envisions the two burning together, each gaining brilliance from the other; the line ‘and wide the gate between them swings’ anticipates Lowell’s refrain in Guns as Keys (BI7) by a decade. The third section calls to mind Japan, a ‘low coast / Where temples rise amid the wooded hills’, and a ‘lonely priest beside the Inland Sea’ who ‘knows not the fever of our restlessness’. The poem rises to climax in a vision of unity in lines among Ficke’s best:

The ways of the East are not the ways of the West.
Yet when two seekers in a single quest
Meet at an evening halt, shall they not part
Between them what each one may count as gain:
The paths of peace, the anodyne of pain,
And the profoundest secrets of the heart?
And shall not each from other win some light
To aid him on his journey through the night?

The world is one; and all its aims are one,
Though varying outward aspects they must wear.
That which thou callest fair
May foul appear to men beneath a different sun.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[Yet] now the day of mingled life is come.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No more is beauty prisoned in its home,
Nor truth confined within its native cells.
Over the earth one banner is unfurled
Of many races, who at last behold,
As mists of darkness part in dawn of gold,
A single quest for a united world

Critics in the latter half of the century, including Miner and Kodama (A59), have not often found kind words for Ficke’s verse, but this ambitious and well-meaning work, though in all respects a product of its time and not involved in the business of establishing a new poetic order, may be accused only of an optimism that seems out of place at century’s end. It remains satisfying in its relative lack of sentimentality, its humanism, and its insistence that the ways of the East and of the West, represented by Japan and the United States, each may enhance the other. The publication of the work by Harold Monro’s Samurai Press, from which Ficke’s first book, From The Isles, had appeared a year earlier, renders the epigraph, ‘in memory of Cambridge days and nights’ potentially confusing, but the Cambridge is that in Massachusetts, where Ficke had been a student at Harvard from 1900 to 1904.





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