I Long For My Beloved Far Away at the Edge of an Alien Sky – Classical Korean Poetry, Part 2

This time we’re finishing up Jaihiun Kim’s translation of Classical Korean Poetry. Part V picks up with the 18th century, during which Korea began to Westernize.  Not much is known about poet Hŭisŏk Pak, but his poem is one that I selected for the title of this post:

The candlelight flickering over my shallow sleep
Keeps company with my dreams, in which
I long for my beloved far away
At the edge of an alien sky.
The moon’s down; the nightingale weeps no more.
The yard is covered with fallen petals.
(Kim, p. 171)

This poem by singer Songgye-yŏnwŏl has exactly the image I was aiming for with my blogger pen name, Xiansa (Heonsa in Korean?):

I want to play my komun’go
But my fingers hurt.
So let me place its strings
On the pinetree by the north window.
There they will hum sweet notes
In the wind.
(Kim, p. 155)

That’s it, the idea of the wind blowing through the strings of a harp and creating music. I think that’s probably right in the spirit of the names of the kisaengs. For those who don’t know much about traditional Korean instruments, here is some information on the komun’go in a video that cites one of the poets I covered last post; they even feature his memorial museum in the video:

Chŏngbo Yi was a scholar (1692-1766 AD):

Do not envy the fish
That seem to leisurely play about in the lakes.
After the fishermen have gone,
The herons come to wait for their chance.
All day long the fish bob up and down;
They have no time to stay in peace.
(Kim, p. 128)

Here’s a second poem by this author:

Falling pear-blossoms whirl
Madly about in the wind,
Unable to return to their homes;
Some are caught in spider’s webs
And the spiders pounce on them
Thinking they are so many butterflies.
(Kim, p. 128)

That last one is my favorite so far. The imagery is just perfect and not so common. This poet has 78 extant poems, so he’s one of the more prominent figures in Korean literary history.

Keith new-years

Elizabeth Keith, New Year’s Shopping (1921)

Ch’ŏnt’aek Kim was a master sijo singer who left a large body of poems. His birth and death dates are also unknown:

Friends luxuriating in power and rank,
Do not boast of your four-horse carriage.
After hares are caught and killed,
The faithful hounds meet death for meat.
I am a stranger to fame or infamy.
(Kim, p. 139)

Here’s a second poem by the same author:

In the long autumn night
My thought for my love deepens;
The intermittent raindrops
On the paulownia leaves hurt me.
I am alone, it seems, to grieve
Over my misfortune.
(Kim, p. 142)

Sujang Kim was an official under Yŏngjo who edited compilations of poetry and left quite a large body of his own work (1690-? AD):

Let my aged and sick heart
Be a companion to the chrysanthemums;
Let my skein of sorrows unravel
In ink drawings of grapes.
The white strands of hair under my ears
Vibrate to the long notes of a song.
(Kim, p. 143)

Here is a second poem by that author:

I have no one coming to this mountain village
But I am not dreary or lonesome.
The birds chat to the smiling flowers;
The bamboos speak the speech of men.
The winds in the pines play the harp;
The nightingale sings tuneful notes.
Let it be. Who will mind my riches?
(Kim, p. 148)

Another awesome poem with the wind miraculously playing a stringed instrument.   This next one has a more complex form than the standard sijo we’ve been looking at, and it’s also from the same author:

The peony is the queen of flowers
And the sunflower a loyal subject.
The plum blossom is a hermit,
The apricot blossom a little man;
The lotus is a lady,
The chrysanthemum a sage;
The camellia is a poor scholar,
The gourd flower an old man;
The China pink is a boy,
The sweet-briar a girl.
Among them the pear blossom is a poet,
While the red peach, the jade peach and
The three-colored peach are young dandies.
(Kim, p. 149)


Chinese Peony, Photo by Ulf Eliasson

Chint’ae Kim was a master singer, and his birth and death dates are unknown:

Great pine-tree sprawling like a dragon,
I cannot hide my delight in seeing you.
You’ve stood up well to the whippings
Of thunder and lightning.
Who says the martyr, Song, is dead?
I see him incarnate in you.
(Kim, p. 150)

The reference here to Song is a reference to the Six Martyrs, a subject that keeps coming up in the book, so this link provides some historical background to that 15th century incident involving King Sejo:


Tusŏng Kim also has no birth or death dates, but his poems are distinct:

O love. This love of ours is a fishing net,
Tied knot by knot, spread over the whole ocean.
Our love is tangled and entwined like the vines
Of the melon, the cucumber and the water melon,
Creeping all over the place. Indeed, our love has
Endless miles to go.
(Kim, p. 152)

I found this little gem in the section of anonymous poems:

I have planted a paulownia
To coax the phoenix to come.
I wait but the bird is not lured by a tree
Planted by an ordinary soul.
Only a slice of moon shines,
Suspended on the bare branches.
(Kim, p. 187)

This book has a special if short section on poems by famous kisaeng, and while I won’t quote any of those here, let me quote a little of his introduction on the kisaeng class in traditional Korea:

In a closed feudalistic society of the Yi dynasty, women were not given equal opportunities in every arena of social activities. The kisaeng or entertaining woman, was, however, in a position to mix with the upper class or nobility, despite her low status in the social hierarchy. Unlike her modern counterpart, her trade was not always associated with an unsavory reputation of flesh-pot business. She had to be talented in arts and literature enough to match her male partners. For one, composition and singing of sijo became a necessity with men. (Kim, p. 173)

I found a reference to sijo at Brittanica at this link with the important paragraphs quoted below:


While early sijo were preoccupied with reflecting on the Koryŏ dynasty and other historical subjects (largely political and military), longer sijo cycles developed as well. These longer works were best exemplified by Yi Hyŏn-Bo’s Ŏbu sa (“Song of the Fishermen”). Poems such as Chu Se-Bung’s “Oryun ka” (“Song of the Five Relations”) and Chŏng Ch’ŏl’s “Hunmin ka” (“Song to Instruct the People”) paved the way for instructive sijo that sang of Confucian morals, while 16th-century works such as Yi Hwang’s “Tosan shibi kok” (“Twelve Songs of Mount To”) and Yi I’s “Kosan kugok ka” (“Nine Songs of Mount Ko”) established a tradition that glorified the truths to be found in nature. Hwang Chin-I and Yi Mae-Ch’ang pioneered a new realm of sijo that described love in emotive terms….

Sijo continued to be composed by scholar-bureaucrats. Yun Sŏn-Do wrote poems marked by beautifully refined language but also a blunt sensibility toward contemporary realities. Another scholar-bureaucrat, Kwŏn Sŏp, concentrated solely on sijo at the expense of other poetic forms; his works show a never-ending awareness of self and custom. Yi Chŏng-Bo wrote of the pleasure of removing oneself from worldly cares. Quite a few of his works take up the theme of love—a rarity in the poetry of scholar-bureaucrats. Yi Se-Bo, a member of the royal family who wrote some 450 sijo, wrote on varied subjects and themes, including matters of government.

The active participation of the wihangin in the creation and performance of sijo during the 18th century resulted in an expansion of the class of people responsible for the form’s production. Professional singers who were among the wihangin formed singing groups, developed principles for composing sijo, and produced sijo collections. These collections—examples of which include Kim Su-Jang’s Haedong kayo (“Songs of Korea”) and An Min-Yŏng’s Kagok wŏllyu (“Anthology of Korean Songs”) as well as Kim Ch’ŏng-T’aek’s Ch’ŏnggu yŏngŏn (“Songs of Green Hills”)—contained poems that had previously been transmitted only orally as well as songs that had in the past been recorded in book form. These collections also included new works by contemporary authors and, overall, contributed greatly to the elevation of the sijo form.

This ends my three year cycle over the Christmas holidays through the various poetic traditions of East Asia, and this series will be added to the Literati Corner starting next year.

Part two of a two part series.

Coming up in 2016: I have some new programming for next year which will include a Literati Corner community study guide and essay contest, hopefully the start of bonus manga storylines that are related to my novels, the results of the 2016 IPPY Book Awards to find out if either of my books won in their respective categories, and a virtual book tour or two. I also hope to expand my affiliate blog that you can click on here in the right column, The Sun Rises in the East.  But first, we return to South Korea to tackle Jingyu Park’s Suspicious Maids!

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 from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror 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 and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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