What Can Stop the Rise and Fall of Things? – Classical Korean Poetry, Part 1

For our final series for 2015, I’ll be looking at Jaihiun Kim’s translation of Classical Korean Poetry, which can be purchased here:


It was published in 1994 and runs 231 pages. The type of poem the book concentrates on it called a sijo which was connected to singing. The structure is generally 3 lines of verse with an average of 45 syllables, each line with 4 phrases and a pause between them. It isn’t strict on syllable count, but here is one possible configuration:

First line 3 4 3 4
Second line 3 4 3 4
Third line 3 6 4 3
(Kim, Page vii)

As usual, I’m only going to highlight a few of the offerings in the first half of the book. Since Korea was strongly Confucian in its leadership style, its scholar class was much closer in outlook to Chinese scholars than Japanese leadership, and this is reflected in the genre of poems we see in Korean literary history. Just as in old China, virtuous scholars grew disgusted with the politics and corruption of the court in their day, and they retired to a quiet literary life in the countryside. So many poems describe these country pursuits, such as fishing, or lament the loss of their role in service to the king. If you flip through the book and glance at the brief biographies of the poets, many of them were ex-court functionaries who were framed and disgraced or executed over political matters. Otherwise, genres include the common topics we see in both Japanese and Chinese poetry, themes of nature and separation from a loved one.

The title of this post comes from poet Ch’ung Ch’oe, a Koryŏ dynasty scholar, (984-1068 AD):

The sun sets duly in the west;
The yellow river empties into the East Sea.
The greatest men of all ages
All go to the graveyard in the end.
What can stop the rise and fall of things?
What’s the use of regretting the inevitable?
(Kim, p.3)

Ch’ŏl Chŏng was a prolific poet of the 16th century, (1536-1593 AD):

Two stone buddhas by the roadside
Face each other, naked and unfed.
Though they stand unprotected
Against wind, rain, snow and frost,
I envy them because they do not know
the pain of separation.
(Kim, p. 49)

Yŏng Ch’oe was a military commander of the Koryŏ dynasty, (1316-1388 AD):

Do not mock this pine tree,
Bent low by the load of snow.
Can those flowers blooming in spring
Endure forever in their beauty?
When the snowflakes drift by the wind
They will surely envy me.
(Kim, p.6)

Tŏknyŏng Kim was a minister falsely charged and imprisoned (1567-1596 AD):

With the spring hills on fire
All the buds burn unflowered.
We have the water
To quench this fire.
But the smokeless fire blazing in my heart
No water can extinguish.
(Kim, p. 72)

Miller koreanshrine

Lilian Miller, A Korean Shrine (1928)

Hŭm Sin was a scholar who retired to the countryside, (1566-1628 AD):

It rained during the night
And the pomegranate has broken into blossom.
I hitch up the crystal blinds
Of the pavilion by the lotus lake:
How I wish to unload this sorrow
Caused by someone I love.
(Kim, p. 74)

Here is a second poem by him:

Would that I painted a picture of my beloved
With the blood that races into my heart.
Then I would hang it on the white wall
So that I could see it any time I liked.
Who could have created this thing called
Separation that causes me such death-in-life?
(Kim, p. 76)

Sŏndo Yun (1587-1671) was one of the most important poets who wrote a substantial number of poems, including the epic poem “The Fisherman’s Song of Four Seasons.” I have picked out a few of the stanzas below, though you really should read the whole poem on your own:

Let me hasten to the stone hut in the pines
And watch the moon at early dawn.
How can I plow my way through
The fallen leaves in the bleak hills?
A white cloud pursues me;
My grass garment grows heavy on me.
(Kim, p. 99)

I take out my long-unheeded harp
And play on it, newly strung.
It meets me with notes clear
And sweet as of old days.
But since nobody knows my song
From now I’ll keep my harp encased.
(Kim, p. 102)

This is his bio in Korean since there isn’t much available in English:


Myŏnghan Yi was a court minister (1595-1645 AD), and he has multiple poems still extant that are rather wonderful:

If my dream-road should ever
Leave footprints,
The very stone path to your window
Would have been worn smooth.
But I grieve, for my dream-road
Leaves no traces.
(Kim, p. 106)

Here is a second example:

The sun set in the western peaks,
Heaven and earth dissolve in desolation.
The moon glistens white on the pear blossoms;
The thoughts of you rise fresh within me.
O nightingale, why do you cry all night?
For whom do you pour your tender passion?
(Kim, p. 107)

This last example gives you some insight into why I picked the nightingale motif for my horror novel. It was a popular subject in both eastern and western poetic tradition, particularly in Persian literature in the form of the rose and nightingale. Here’s a few more from this particular poet.

Fisherman on the river Chou,
Do not cook the fish if you catch them:
Ch’u-yuan’s [a loyal retainer drowned because of court intrigue] spirit still lies alive
Imbedded in the bellies of the fish.
Seethed by fire in an iron cauldron,
His loyalty will never die away.
(Kim, p. 107)

Here’s a final example:

With a goosefoot stick I wander
Along the green stream into the green mountains.
All the peaks are veiled in clouds;
The mist silvers every valley below.
I hope to come as often as I can
To such a place of wonder.
(Kim, p.108)

Here’s more on this particular poet, though it is in Korean only:


It’s hard to stop at just a handful, but I’ll finish the book next time.

Part one of a two part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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