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Sijo Masters in Translation

Korean Sijo by Yi Hwang


Better known by his pen name T’oegye (Retirement by the Stream), Yi Hwang has been called the greatest scholar and most influential Neoconfucian philosopher of the Choson dynasty. After serving honorably at court and as president of the National Academy, he retired to his country home in a scenic valley in Tosan in southeast Korea, where he taught philosophy and poetry. Many of his students became famous in their own right. After Yi died, King Sonjo awarded him the posthumous position of Prime Minister. He commissioned a calligraphic sign saying Tosan School which still hangs at the entrance to Yi's home. The Society of T'oegye Studies is an academic organization with members all over the world. His famous Twelve Songs of Tosan is a cycle of poems celebrating the beauties of nature and examining the essence of the human situation. The following verses are from that cycle.

Some say I ought to live this way;
some say I ought to live that way.
Others call me a bumpkin,
a hayseed, a country hick.
Must I forsake my lifelong love
of nature’s rocks and ageless springs?

The old teacher never saw me;
he lived long before my time.
Though I may never meet him,
I can see the road he traveled.
With his wise road before me,
what reason for me to stray?

Gentle mist and haze caress my home;
wind and moon are my friends.
The land around is peaceful now,
and I count my final years.
Life, old mate, I hope to give you back
a true and shameless soul.

Fragrant orchids in the valley
lend enchantment to the air;
those puffy clouds over the mountain
are also delightful.
Amid pleasures such as these,
I still long for my dear one.*
*the Hanguel word nim used here might alternately
be interpreted as lover, lord, king, or god.

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All Rights Copyright 1996, 2005 by Larry Gross. Please do not reprint without written permission.

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