An introduction to the sijo

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a Form of Short Korean Poem

by Richard Rutt,

(盧大榮 神父)

Priest of the Anglican Mission
[page 1]

Since this paper was originally given before the Society on 4 December 1957 it has been completely rewritten, and a number of fresh examples added to it. I hesitate to associate other people’s names with it, lest their reputations should suffer from its shortcomings, but many people have helped correct and emend what I have written. In particular, Professor Cho Yun-je (趙潤濟) of the Songgyun’gwan University gave me most generous help and guidance. Mr Ed Wagner, of the Harvard-Yengching Institute, corrected some of the historical details, and Professor P’i Ch’ŏn-dŭk (皮千得) of Seoul National University, and other friends have corrected some of my mistaken translations, which I should otherwise have let pass in ignorance. But they are in no sense guarantors of the work as published.

I have not provided a paraphernalia of footnotes and precise references, because they seemed to me to be inappropriate to the scope of the paper. It is essentially an oeuvre de vulgarisation.

Pyŏngt’aekkun Anjungni

Church of the Holy Spirit

May 1958

A Form of Short Korean Poem

I. Introductory

I pretend to be no more than an amateur of Korean studies, and would never have presumed to offer a paper on any Korean poetry but for two reasons: first the importance of the sijo (詩調) in Korean literature, and second the fact that next to nothing has ever been written on the subject in English.

The importance of the sijo is unquestionable. Probably no form of verse has been more used in this country. I hope to indicate how its shape and style are a natural product of the Korean language. But, more than that, the whole repertoire of several thousand verses, as preserved in the classic anthologies, forms a detailed poetic commentary on Korean history since the fall of Koryŏ. The sijo was the vehicle of political comment and of social comment: it reflects [page 2] both the heart and the mind of the nation throughout the Yi dynasty. At its best it shows loyalty and devotion, and—in the country of confucian impassivity—intense passion; at its worst it shows a mechanical formalism, that clever and lifeless juggling with the simple symbolism of plum blossom, chrysanthemums and seagulls which are so often the westerner’s idea of what oriental poetry is — pretty, but not profound.

Yet at its best, kings were not ashamed to compose sijo. Canonized sages, ministers of state, even admirals, and almost all of the great hero patriots, have added to the corpus, and generally with songs of poignant beauty.

Today there are some signs that with the waning of the old fashioned Chinese poetry contests, the sijo composing contests may take their place. Last October at the Presidential Paegilchang, (白日場 or outdoor poetry contest), in the Songgyun’gwan (成均館) grounds it was interesting to compare the old men composing Chinese poems under the zelkowa trees with the young men, even schoolboys, composing sijo under the pines. Yet it was noticeable that the band of sijo writers was much smaller. It seems to be generally admitted that it is fundamentally harder to write good sijo than to compose passable ruled Chinese poems (律詩 or 四律). I find the same in the countryside. Korea is fairly liberally scattered with old men who can turn an impromptu Chinese poem, but they say that the sijo, though written in Korean, is harder because its meaning must be deeper. Only once in an old-style village school have I had the old teacher offer to call for a kettle of wine and then sing me one of the old songs. And the rural scholars insist that many a sijo singer, even in the old days, did not understand the meaning of his songs.

But if it is hard to compose sijo well, it is not because they are not known. During the last thirty years Korean scholars, led by men like Ch’oe Nam-sŏn (崔南善) and Cho Yun-je (趙潤濟), have produced an enormous literature on the subject. Every middle-school boy can now recite several classical examples, the cheap decorative panels of wallpaper in han’gul are nearly all sijo texts, and you have only to murmur the opening phrase of a famous poem at a city bus stop to have the shoeshine boys finish it triumphantly. [page 3]

In view of the importance of the subject it is surprising that it has not been treated more in English. Indeed, little has been published on any aspect of Korean literature apart from Bishop Trollope’s paper on “Some Korean Books and their Authors” (Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Vol XXI, 1932), which he would have been the first to admit is but a brief sketch of the field. Indeed it is almost entirely concerned with books written in Chinese characters. He gives a translation of just one sijo—the famous reply of Chŏng Mong-ju (see p. 15), but he gives no account of the genre, and regards this example as a lapse in the dignity of a Confucian scholar. He seems even to be unaware of the circumstances of that almost legendary composition.

There are a few references to sijo in various books on Korea. In Mr. Younghill Kang’s The Grass Roof, the form is not mentioned by name, but several translations are worked into the text. Mr. V. H. Viglielmo of the Harvard-Yenching Institute published some ten translations, without any descriptive notes, in Korean Survey during 1955 (Vol. 4, No. 2, Feb 1955 and No. 7, Oct 1955), later followed by a few more, very slightly commented on by Sŏ Tu-su (Vol. No. 8. Oct 1956). Pyŏn Yŏng-t’ae (卞榮泰), one time prime minister of Korea, published a group of translations and some notes on the poets in his Songs of Korea (Seoul YMCA Press, 1948). But the best work I have found on the subject in English is an article by Peter H. Lee in East and West (Year VII No. 1, Rome, April 1956, pp. 61-67). He says there that all the translations he gives were previously printed in the Hudson Review (Winter 1955, Vol VIII, No. 4) but this I have not been able to see. The article is very condensed, but it does describe the sijo at its best.

I read all these with great profit, and in spite of searching, have not been able to find more, though I know that Mr Peter Hyon of Paris broadcast some translations on the B.B.C. Third Progamme in 1956 and is to publish some more in “Encounter” (London) this year; and I believe that a few others have published occasional translations in various magazines. However, I have relied here on a number of Korean sources which I list at the end of this introduction. Some of them are frankly school books, intended for high - [page 4] school and university students, and these have been of particular use in helping me to understand the archaic language of many of the poems. Such as is original in this paper—and hence most likely to be at fault—is my own application of Western critical standards to the consideration of the poems.

I have made no attempt to go to the great libraries and consult the classic editions. For a beginning it is sufficient, and as much as I am capable of, to give the sijo a fair introduction. It has great potentiality for giving pleasure to foreigners as well as to Koreans, but it needs to be promoted a little.

In writing about poetry there can be no substitute for the original text. That alone carries the inspiration, the mood and the skill of the poet with its unique power to move the hearer. But in this case translation is a necessity, and I have ventured to present my own.

Of the previous translations mentioned above, I find none completely satisfactory. Mr. Pyŏn turns the songs into rhymed six-verse stanzas, with the flavour of an English ballad. The verse is competent without question, but the poems seem to me to have been de-Koreanized. Mr. Kang’s translations I find both flat and precious, although he tries a variety of metrical treatments.

Mr. Viglielmo and Mr. Lee translate into six line free verse stanzas, unrhymed, and I gather that Mr. Hyon does the same. These are by far the most satisfactory.

In face of the difficulties even the most skilled craftsman might quail in the effort to transpose the delicate confections of the Korean poets into the English language, in spite of the fact that English is as supple a tongue as the world has ever seen. So I make no claim for literary merit in the translations which I offer. I hope they are not actually misleading. I have done my best to make them an accurate translation not only of the sense, but also of the figures of speech of the originals, so far as this is consistent with ready intelligibility.

As a diversion for candlelit evenings in a Korean village I have also tried to impress on these versions the shape of the Korean poems. This means as far as possible keeping the syllable count and pauses of the original, even [page 5] if the actual rhythm is elusive. I believe that verse loses much if there is no discipline of form in the translation, and this seems to be the best way to approximate the feel of the originals. But I have frequently found the task too difficult, and many of the translations do not correspond accurately with the Korean syllable patterns.

Proper names are a problem in translation. Sometimes they involve a pun that is more evident if they are translated, but very often they are better left intact, with their poetic overtones explained in annotations.

But it would be unthinkable to publish the translations without the texts. Sijo texts are full of variants, as any traditional literary forms must be. Being incompetent to begin textual criticism I have not tried, but have reproduced the poems in a written form which I believe will be most acceptable to foreigners with some knowledge of Korean. There is no question of the “original form” of a sijo when written down, because the poems are poems to be sung, often composed impromptu, and even among the classic anthologies some use Chinese characters and some do not. I believe that as they are reproduced here they will yield the greatest profit to the greatest number, and effect the best general introduction to the subject.

One word for those who cannot appreciate the Korean texts. The translations may often, or always, appear flat and anything but lyrical. Such people must be assured that perhaps only by attempting to compose a verse form can one learn how delicately its classical exemplars are constructed. The elasticity of the sijo form is as deceptive as the great sijo are captivating. Theirs is a beauty which is hard to catch. I have read passable, even charming English poems written by Koreans. I wonder when, if ever, I can hope to read even a tolerable sijo from a foreign pen.

Select Bibliography

洪雄善, 朴魯春: 古詩歌註解 A school book with brief notes on the chief kinds of Korean poetry and texts. [page 6]

方鍾錢: 古時調精解 Gives detailed notes on the poems and where the original texts can be found. Primarily intended for university students.
爾豪愚, 尹啓鉉: 今名時調精解 Gives very full commentaries on the poems, including modern spelling of the texts, and many Chinese translations. Intended for high school and university students, it is the best general introduction to the texts now readily available.
李能雨: 李朝時調史 A detailed discussion of the development of the sijo, concentrating on its subject matter.
鄭註東, 兪昌植: 靑丘永言 A modern edition of the original anthology of the same name, but with very full analytical notes.
趙潤濟: 國文學史, 韓國詩歌史綱 , 鋒國詩歌研究, 國文學槪說 These books by a great pioneer of the study of Korean literature contain valuable articles on the sijo form.
金思燁: 李朝時代歌謠研究 Contains a long discussion of sijo.
李秉岐, 白鐵: 國文學全史 Contains brief and lucid notes on the sijo and its development.
李在秀: 尹孤山研究 A study of the paramount master of the form.

柳世基: 時調唱法 Deals with the musical performance of the poems.

This list is necessarily selective. The tendency of the [page 7] Korean writers is to concentrate on questions of form, history, or elucidation, without venturing much into the criticism of technique or emotion. All the above books were published in Seoul, though some have been through various editions. All are in print in 1958.
II. The Form of the Sijo
Yi Un-sang (李殷相), a contemporary poet and himself an exponent of sijo, has described the sijo as being a “Form without form, and formless though formed” : which is as much as to say that there is considerable freedom of treatment of the basic pattern by the individual. If there were no formal discipline, the thing would not be verse at all, but merely a kind of prose.

Korean scholars have devoted much energy to the analysis of large numbers of sijo in order to establish the exact nature of the basic pattern.

It is agreed that a sijo is a stanza of three verses, and that each of the verses has a major pause in both sense and rhythm about the centre. This is not quite the same as a caesura in Latin or English verse, because it can never be syncopated with metrical feet. In fact the sijo has nothing that can be accurately termed a metrical foot, for although each half of a verse tends to have a secondary pause, its position is variable, and some Korean writers ignore it in their descriptions of the basic scheme of the sijo metre. In the case of the third and last verse alone is there always a definite structural pause within the first half verse.

Korean verse does not use accentual stress nor syllable length as a metrical unit, although accentual stresses contribute much to the charm of the sijo rhythms. To this extent it is different from classical western verse forms. It differs from Chinese and Japanese verse forms in that it does not adhere to a strict syllable count, although the only way of describing the metre is in terms of syllable groupings with approximate syllable counts.

The most convenient table showing the basic pattern is that of Professor Cho Yun-je (趙潤濟). The Roman figures [page 8] indicate the norm, or ideal number of syllables in a group, and the Chinese figures the minimum and maximum that can occur.













Yi Un-sang suggests another scheme which does not give any ideal pattern but shows the limits of the numbers of syllables in each group and gives very slightly different results.

2 - 5

3 - 6

2 - 5

4 - 6

1 - 5

3 - 6

2 - 5

4 - 6


5 - 9

4 - 5

3 - 4

6 — 9

6 — 9

5 — 8

6 — 9

3 5 — 8

4—5 3—4

Professor Yi Pyŏng-gi (李秉岐) gives a significantly different pattern because he prefers to ignore the secondary pauses in the first two verses. In many poems these pauses are so slight as to be virtually nonexistent. His scheme is also a corrective to the other two in that it indicates that the maximum for each half verse is not so great as the sum of the maximums of the component quarter verses. For example, with reference to Professor Yi Un-sang’s table above, if the first group has as many as five syllables, the second will not be more than four.
A comparison of these three tables will show the metrical limits within which the writers of sijo have worked. There is, however, a tendency for some groups to remain [page 9] constant or to maintain certain relations to one another:

a.) The first group in the last verse is invariably three syllables, and has a pivotal importance.

b.) The fourth group in the last verse is most commonly three syllables.

c.) The fourth group in the middle verse and the third group in the last verse are most

commonly of four syllables.

d.) The first group in the first line is usually shorter than the one following.

e.) The second group of the last line is never less than five syllables.

The relative weights of each group of syllables are one of the chief means by which the sijo achieves charm of rhythm. In order to show the normal distribution of this weight, or relative proportion of the groups to each other, it seems worth while to reduce the above tables to a much simpler form:

3 , 4 : 4 (or 3) , 4;

3 , 4 : 4 (or 3) , 4;

3 : 4 - 4 : 3.

The first two verses have similar rhythm, the first and third quarters being lighter than the second and fourth.

The last verse is different. It is drawn out in the second quarter, but abbreviated in the last group of the whole poem. This achieves a conclusive effect by slowing up the rhythm of the last verse in the long second group, but compensating for this extra weight and clinching the whole composition in the very short last group. This last group has something of the effect of the rhyming in the couplet at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet.

The punctuation in this table will also suggest the relative values of the pauses. The comma in half verses is the lightest, briefest pause and may amount to no more than the word difference between a subject-noun and its verb. The colon at the half-verse is a break between complete conceptual phrases, which do not, normally, complete an idea, but require the ensuing half verse to finish [page 10] the sense. The semicolon on each verse indicates the completion of the sense and the absence of any enjambement between the three verses.

The colons in the last verse indicate pauses similar to those in the previous two verses. The first group in this verse is most frequently an interjection or strongly differentiated noun, and the last group a form of the verb 하다 which often has the effect of putting the rest of the poem into virtual quotation marks and adds very little to the sense, save that forms such as 하노라 may indicate the person of the speaker and 하리라 may indicate the tense, although either sense may be implicit in the poem before this last word is reached. This is so much the case that when the poems are sung in the traditional style this last group of syllables is dropped altogether (see below p. 87).

The central pause in the last verse is of variable character. It may be similar to either the half or quarter verse pauses of the previous lines.

The metrical form of the sijo is most commonly supported by the sense structure of the poem. This bears a close resemblance to the pattern used in strictly ruled Chinese poems composed after the T’ang dynasty models. It is also very similar to the form of the Shakespearean sonnet.

This structure is most commonly written in Chinese by Koreans as 起承轉結 although other characters of similar meaning are sometimes substituted.

In the Chinese poems there is a fourfold pattern of verses and one verse, couplet, or stanza occupies each of these four divisions of the sense structure. In the sijo there are only three verses, so the two last sense divisions have to be combined into the third verse.

The first verse (起) is the statement, or enunciation of the theme. In sijo it may take the form of a question.

The second verse (承) is the development of the theme, and may answer the question of the first verse, or further elaborate it.

The first quarter of the last verse is the twist or turn (轉) which leads into the conclusion (結) and is more closely connected with it than with what goes before. If [page 11] the first two lines have asked a question, the last line will answer it. Or the last line may be a neat comment and frequently has a witty turn.

Much interest centres in the twist (轉). Most commonly it is a three-syllable interjection. Otherwise it is likely to be a noun sharply differentiated by some such grammatical form as the old nominative ending in 야 or 이 야, or by a striking change in imagery invoking the introduction of a startlingly fresh idea. For example in “When this frame is dead and gone” (below p.16) the second line establishes the imagery of trees in summer by using the summer name of the Diamond Mountains, so that the image of driven snow at the beginning of the third verse comes as a sharp contrast.

The above description applies only to the standard form of sijo, called in Korean pyŏngsijo (平時調). There are two other forms. The medium sijo, or ŏssijo is expanded, most often in the middle line, sometimes in the last line, and very rarely in the first. It is not always distinguished clearly from the long sijo or sasŏlsijo (辭說時調) which is almost formless, though it retains a three-verse structure as a general rule and always ends with the three or four syllable final group of the normal form. These longer forms belong to the period of popularization of the sijo and seem to be less esteemed by the Koreans, although there are a fair number in the anthologies. In this paper I am confining my attention almost exclusively to the standard form (平時調).

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