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

–poet—was born in Davenport, Iowa, to Frances (Davison) Ficke and Charles August Ficke, a prominent Davenport attorney. Arthur Ficke graduated from Davenport High School in 1900 after serving as literary editor of the Red and Blue, where he published five poems, two short stories, and two essays. He then matriculated at Harvard University, where he wrote for the college's literary magazine, the Advocate. In 1904 he was elected president of the Advocate and class poet.

    After graduating from Harvard in 1904, Ficke spent 10 months traveling the world with his family before attending law school and teaching English at the State University of Iowa in 1906 and 1907. Also in 1907, Ficke married his first wife, Evelyn B. Blunt. Upon his admission to the Iowa State Bar in 1908, Ficke returned to Davenport to practice law with his father. During that time, Ficke published his first poetry collections, From the Isles: A Series of Songs Out of Greece (1907), The Happy Princess (1907), and The Earth Passion, Boundary, and Other Poems (1908). In those collections, Ficke's love of travel, romantic themes, and traditional forms of poetry are evident.

    While Ficke worked with his father in Davenport, he became increasingly drawn to bohemian Chicago, as well as to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay; in 1912 he sent her a copy of The Earth Passion, thus beginning a lifelong exchange of literature, flirtation, and friendship. Although he longed to write poetry full time, Ficke was able to balance his life as a corporate lawyer and a poet quite well for many years, and some of his best work came out of that period. In 1913 Ficke published his play, Mr. Faust, a modern version of Goethe's tale, and his Twelve Japanese Painters, which combined two of his passions—poetry and art—and established him as an authority on the subject of Japanese prints. In 1914 Ficke published his most critically acclaimed work, Sonnets of a Portrait Painter, which was soon followed by The Man on the Hilltop and Other Poems and Chats on Japanese Prints, both published in 1915.

    Ficke is perhaps best known for his part in the Spectra hoax of 1916, concocted by Ficke and his Harvard chum, Witter Bynner, as a parody of modernist verse, which Ficke found distasteful and a corruption of the traditional poetry that he loved. The hoax fooled literary critics for quite some time, though perhaps the joke was on Ficke, as he felt that the experimental poetry he produced through his invented personae, Anne Knish, was some of his best. In addition to his clever and humorous work in Spectra, Ficke continued his "serious" poetry and published many sonnets in little magazines; An April Elegy in 1917 was a return to the lofty romance of conventional poetry.

    In 1917 Ficke's life began to change. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served first as a captain and finally as a lieutenant colonel in France during World War I. On his way to France in 1918, he finally met Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the two enjoyed a passionate three-day affair, during which they exchanged love sonnets. While in France, Ficke met artist and ambulance driver Gladys Brown; upon his return to America in 1922, he divorced Evelyn, married Gladys, and left his law practice and Davenport for good.

    After the war, Ficke purchased a home in upstate New York. He continued to produce consistently good poetry, most notably Out of Silence and Other Poems (1924), Mountain Against Mountain (1929), The Secret and Other Poems (1936), and Tumultuous Shore, and Other Poems (1942). He also published his first and only novel, Mrs. Morton of Mexico, in 1939, inspired by his travels in that country. Although he suffered from tuberculosis, Ficke continued to write and travel until he lost his battle with cancer in Hudson, New York.
Sources Most of Ficke's papers are held by the Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. William Jay Smith, The Spectra Hoax (1961), offers a full discussion of Ficke's role in that literary project. Gladys Brown, "Arthur Davison Ficke and His Friends," Yale Library Gazette (January 1949), 140–44, provides biographical information.
Contributor: Bethany Stump