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Sijo Masters in Translation

Korean Sijo by Chŏng Ch'ŏl

(1536 - 1593)

Chŏng Ch’ŏl was born in Seoul, Korea, into a distinguished family. He was raised among the elite families of the royal court and often played with the Crown Prince (later to become King Myŏngjong). His primary influences were Confucius, the noted Korean philosopher Ki Tae-sung, and the poet Song Sun. Among the classic masters of sijo, Chŏng Ch’ŏl and Yun Sŏndo are usually ranked first and second in importance. Yun is thought by many to have been the better writer of sijo, but Chŏng the overall master in poetic skills and artistic imagination.

He was evidently a brilliant but stubborn man, often embroiled in political controversies. He spent much of his life alternating between distinguished government service, exile, and retirement—both voluntary and involuntary. Among the positions he held were personal secretary to King Sŏnjo, second prime minister, general of the army, ambassador to China, royal inspector, and Magistrate of Kang'won Province.

He became the first Korean poet to provide for posterity a considerable body of work: at least 107 sijo are known, many of them dealing with his central themes of love of king and love of country. His poems are characterized by spare, elegant expression; density of meaning; the startling phrase; and the crisp use of irony—elements which have become so much a part of sijo tradition. His pen name was Songgang (Pine River).

I reach deep into my lonely mind and carve out a full moon.
High into night’s starry sky I hang it like a mirror.
Forever let it hang there, sending back the image of my love.*

*Chŏng Chŏl and other classical poets often relied upon the Korean word nim
in situations like this. It has the double meaning of king
and lover. They were thus able to write double entendre love songs
while seeming to pay respects to their ruler.

Fragile lotus leaves are swept with rain, but it makes no mark.
The rain comes harder and harder, but the leaves remain unharmed.
Oh, that my mind were a lotus leaf, unstained by the world’s strife.

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All rights 1998 by Larry Gross. Please do not reprint without written permission.

Updated 071218

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