Arthur Davison Ficke was born on November 10, 1883, in Davenport, Iowa, to an affluent couple: German-born lawyer Charles A. Ficke and Iowa native Frances Ficke. Ficke attended Davenport High School and, in 1900, enrolled in Harvard University, where he studied under William James and George Santayana and became friends with Witter Bynner.
After graduating from Harvard in 1904, Ficke joined his family on a ten-month tour of the world, during which time he developed his lifelong love and appreciation for Japanese prints. While in India, Ficke met an English schoolteacher named Maurice Browne, who would return to England and establish the Samurai Press. Browne would later publish Ficke’s early poetry collection From the Isles: A Series of Songs Out of Greece (1907), a book inspired by this ten-month trip.
In 1906, Ficke returned to Iowa to attend Iowa State University, where he studied law and taught English classes. Upon graduating in 1907, Ficke joined his father’s law firm in Davenport and married Evelyn Bethune Blunt. That same year, he published his first two books of poetry, From the Isles and The Happy Princess and Other Poems (Small, Maynard & Co.). Even though Ficke spent many years in the legal profession, he never had an interest in law and always found time to write and publish poetry, drama, and art criticism. During the first ten years working in his father’s law office, he still managed to write eight books of poems and two works of criticism on Japanese art.
Ficke would go on to publish several more poetry collections, including Tumultuous Shore and Other Poems (Knopf, 1942); The Secret and Other Poems (Doubleday, Doran, 1936); and Mountain against Mountain (Doubleday, Doran, 1929).
In 1912, Bynner introduced Ficke to the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Impressed with Millay’s work, Ficke began an intimate correspondence with her that lasted for several years and led to a brief love affair and lifelong friendship. In 1916, Ficke and Bynner published Spectra: A Book of Poetric Experiments under the names Anne Knish and Emanuel Morgan, respectively. Proclaiming themselves the inventers of a new “Spectric” school of poetry, Ficke and Bynner actually published the work as a satire of modern, experimental poetry. The two maintained the charade until the hoax unraveled in 1918.
That same year, Ficke ended his legal career and joined the Army as the United States entered World War I. He served until 1919, when he was discharged as a lieutenant colonel and judge advocate. In 1922, Ficke divorced Blunt and permanently left Davenport. By the end of 1923, he had remarried and was living in New York City. He continued to devote the rest of his life to writing poetry and giving lectures on Japanese art; and he spent the last decade and a half of his life splitting his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and New York. He died on November 30, 1945, in Hudson, New York.