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The earliest existing Korean poem was written in 17 BCE by King Yuri of Kokuryo, but a strong poetic tradition existed at least 2000 years earlier. From the 6th century CE onward many of the poems were sijo-like in construction, but the sijo came into its own in the 13th century, near the end of the Koryo Dynasty. The greatest of the Old Masters wrote in the 16th and early part of the 17th century, roughly equivalent to the times of Shakespeare and the Renaissance in England.
Here, from time to time, we will exhibit samples from these early writers, along with an historical note or two.
Better known by his pen name T'oegye, Yi Hwang was likely the greatest scholar and most influential philosopher of the Yi Dynasty. After serving honorably in several government positions at court, he retired to study and teach in his beloved valley in Tosan, where his house still stands. His famous Twelve Songs of Tosan is a cycle of verses celebrating the beauties of nature and examining the esssence of the human condition. The following verse is from that cycle.
Though I may never meet him, I can see the road he traveled.
With his wise path before me, what reason for me to stray?
This sijo and the others on this page were adapted into English by Larry Gross unless noted otherwise.
Korea's most famous writer of sijo is also considered its greatest poet:
You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
Yon Sun-do (1587-1671)
This comes from the most famous female poet, a courtesan:
And fold it softly into the waft of a spring-moon quilt
Then fondly uncoil it the night my beloved returns.
Hwang Chin-I (1522-1565)
As the years pile up on my body, you too should grow old.
Oh, if I followed your lead, Mind, I would be run out of town.
See, mirror, here's my face again, soft as a rose's petal.
In dreams I yearn to come to you in a cricket's spirit.
Pak Hyokwan (1781-1880)