BG. Arthur Davison Ficke

4. Twelve Japanese Painters. Chicago: Alderbrink, 1913. Reissue, Hamden, Conn.: Micrographic Systems of Connecticut, 1992. Microfilm.

A collection of verse impressions drawn from ukiyoe. Ficke’s introductory note suggests that though ‘ukioye’ is the best known of the Japanese ‘schools’ of art, it remains too little known in the West. He would hope for too much, he believes, to believe that in presenting poems that take their ‘theme’ from the prints he might lead ‘any new lover’ to the ‘remarkable’ works, but perhaps a few ‘old lovers’ might be interested in examining ‘an attempt at voicing certain impressions’ that the prints produce ‘in all who are familiar with them’. All poems except the ‘Prologue’ and ‘Epilogue’ are reprinted, along with prose descriptions and plates of the prints, in Chats on Japanese Prints (5), though often with titles altered. B and c appear also in Ficke’s Selected Poems (13). Commenting on the poems of Chats, Kodama (A59) writes that they are ‘tediously descriptive and frivolously fantastic’, and indeed one is hard-pressed to find in them more than an unobjectionable love of the prints and an imagination about them given over thoroughly to fancy. Still, Ficke’s genuine knowledge of the ukiyoe tradition is apparent, and the poems at least avoid the glaring mistakes of fact that so often had characterised the poems of nineteenth-century literary Japonisme.

a. Prologue. Conventional verse welcoming the reader to the collection, to ‘partake / Of this strange hostel’s ancient wine’.

b. Figure of a Girl by Harunobu (Ap). The speaker first addresses a ‘you’, whose breath ‘stirs / These fluttering gauzy robes of hers’, then describes the girl (‘Peace folds her in its deeps profound’), and urges that ‘we’ ‘softly steel away. / For what can we, whose hearts are gray, / Bring to her dreaming paradise’. The Harunobu polychrome on which the poem is based is reproduced as plate 11 of Chats.

c. Koriusai Speaks. ‘Koriusai’ (Koryûsai, fl. ca. 1764-88) justifies his preference for ‘panel prints’ (hashirae) as opposed to ‘sheets as wide as some wrestler’s mountain-back’, for ‘That tall and narrow icy space / Gives scope for all the brush beseems. / And who shall ask a wider place / For dreams?’ Probably based on two hashirae reproduced as plate 16 of Chats.

d. Portrait of an Actor in Tragic Role by Shunsho. The kabuki actor, his sword at the ready, is described with imagery more striking than is usual in the collection. At the close a ‘music enfolds’ the actor, which at ‘its zenith’ is like ‘Lightning of unleashed desires / Crashing along the sea’. ‘Kiso’s iron mountains of snow’ (l. 10) refers to the Kiso Mountains of Nagano Prefecture, which Ficke and Bynner would visit four years after publication of this collection. Plate 19 of Chats reproduces the striking print by Katsukawa Shunshô (1726-92) that would have been Ficke’s source.

e. Festival Scene by Kiyonaga. Based on a print by Kiyonaga Torii (Ap). A sonnet in description of the ‘bright race of old’ which ‘revisits here one hour our mortal ways’. The festival appears to be one in which participants dress as Shintô spirits.

f. Dramatic Portrait by Sharaku. Overly dramatic lines on the dramatic portrait: ‘How shall I wrest / From thee the secret of thy lofty doom?’

g. Group of Women by Shuncho. Addressed to the artist Katsukawa Shunchô. Plays upon the Buddhist notion of Impermanence (mujô). Begins with the proposition that Shunchô’s ‘lovely ladies shall not fade’, then praises a series of Japanese sites, the ‘moated walls’ of ‘Yedo’ (Edo), the carvings of Nikko, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb, the gardens of Kyoto, and the Great Buddha of Kamakura, suggesting that each will pass, ‘Impermanence to hearts that guess / Time’s undiscovered loveliness’. But Ficke’s sense of Impermanence is mixed with a touch of American optimism. ‘A fairer Yedo shall arise; / A richer Nikko praise the skies’, a ‘new faith / Shall spring when Buddha is a wraith’, and though ‘more puissant hands than yours / Shall paint anew life’s ancient lures’, this new artist shall benefit from Shunchô beyond the grave: ‘A joy shall light him through your eyes, / A flame shall from your embers rise’, so that even though all is Impermanent, still Shunchô’s ‘lovely ladies’ will be painted anew and still ‘shall not fade!’

h. Two Women by Kitao Masanobu (Ap). Highly romanticised description of the two women of the print, and speculation that ‘he died of longing unspoken who dreamed you to walk in our ways’.

i. Portrait of a Woman by Yeishi. Lengthy reverie about the woman in a print by Hosoda Eishi (1756-1829).

j. Landscape by Hiroshige (Ap). The crescent moon in the print is personified as a beautiful woman. Reprinted under the title The Bow Moon in Chats, and based on a print that appears as the frontispiece of that work.

k. The Pupil of Toyokuni. The ‘pupil’ to which reference is made in the title is revealed in the last line to be Utagawa Toyohiro (Ap). The poem is less romanticised and more readable than most in the collection, in description of a lively Edo street scene of the sort often depicted by Utagawa Toyokuni. Includes reference to Utamaro and to fireworks over the Sumida as seen from Ryôgoku bridge.

l. Landscape by Hokusai (Ap). Probably the first poem in English to take note of Hokusai’s great ‘Wave at Kanazawa’, among the most famous of ukiyoe prints in Europe and America. The verse is more tortured than most in the collection, and by the end the most striking feature of the poem is its unintentional humour.

m. A Group of Ladies by Toyohiro. Urges the ‘careless passer’ to ‘look deep’ at the group of ladies, who are ‘cloaked in a haze of mystery’. In a rare lapse of fact, Ficke describes Toyohiro as Toyokuni’s brother in the prose following this work in Chats, and seems to believe they were in fact biological brothers. They were not, though they were adopted into the same ‘family’ of artists, the Utagawa (Ap).

n. Portrait of a Woman by Utamaro. Overlong description of one of Utamaro’s characteristic portraits.

o. The Birds and Flowers of Hiroshige. Fanciful description of several prints, including one reproduced in plate 56 in Chats.

p. The Landscapes of Hiroshige. Lengthy ruminations about the prints of the title, with allusion to at least twenty-nine. Includes reference to Fuji, the Tôkaidô, Lake Biwa, Harima, the Hira mountains, the shrines of Edo, Ishiyama, Adzuma, and to other place names that may be associated with Hiroshige’s landscapes.

q. Epilogue. The speaker has been drawn to the prints he has written about ‘by the sense that there concealed / Lay key to spacious realms unknown’..





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