Arthur Davison Ficke was born in Davenport, Iowa. His father, Charles August Ficke, was a prominent lawyer and his mother a longtime member of the Davenport Public Library school board. They were active in the Unitarian Church which Ficke attended as a young boy. During his childhood there were frequent travels to Europe and the Orient with his family. Ficke attended Davenport High School, and first published his poetry in the high school newspaper which he served as literary editor. In 1900 he entered Harvard where he studied with William James and George Santayana and wrote for a Harvard literary magazine. It was at Harvard that Ficke met Witter Bynner, who would become a lifelong friend, and figure prominently in a literary hoax involving the Imagist poets the two men would engineer.
After graduation from Harvard, Ficke traveled with his family and then undertook two years of legal study at the University of Iowa (1906-1907) where he also taught in the English department. After his graduation he joined his father's law firm and in 1907 married Evelyn B. Blunt and published his first book, From the Isles (1907).
Ficke's travel's were curtailed by the war as he entered Army service in 1917 and served as a captain in France. In 1918 he met the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and they would remain close friends for the rest of his life. Millay was clearly in love with Ficke, but it was poetry and friendship that would sustain them over the years.
Ficke received an Army assignment as a Judge Advocate in Paris where he continued his efforts to collect Japanese prints, an interest which is reflected in his poetry. A second trip to Japan was made in 1920.
After the war, Ficke decided to give up the practice of law. He divorced his wife in 1922, but remarried in December, 1923 to Gladys Brown, a painter and took up residence in New York City. In 1925 Ficke was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was treated at Saranac Lake, New York. He then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he lived until 1928 when he and his wife acquired a home in Hillsdale, New York.
In the 1930s Ficke would undergo further treatment for tuberculosis, but he continued to travel and to write, and work with Millay on her poetry. In 1940 Ficke began a series of lectures on Japanese art in New York, but the lecture series was canceled in 1941 because of the impending war. Ficke learned in 1943 that he had throat cancer; he died in Hudson, New York on November 30, 1945.