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Sijo Masters in Translation

Korean Sijo by Yun Sŏndo

(1587 - 1671)

Yun Sŏndo, whose pen name was Kosan (Lone Peak), was born in Seoul. At the age of 26 he passed the civil service exam at the Chinsa level, his passport into government service. He became a scholar, a high-ranking government official in several capacities, and tutor to two princes. However, his straightforward (some would say blunt) character made enemies. Some fellow officials called him the equivalent of a loudmouth, troublemaker or whistleblower.

In 1616 he presented a memorandum to the king in which he complained of corruption at court. This won him exile to Kyŏngwon, where he spent most of the next 13 years and wrote his first cycle of short poems, Kyŏnhoe-yo (Songs to Expel the Gloom). In 1628, after a more tolerant king (Injo) succeeded to power, Yun became personal tutor to Injo’s two young princes. During the Manchu Invasion of 1628, he again won the disfavor of the court, and was again exiled. This one didn’t last long. Recalled to court, Yun continued over the next few years to bring trouble down on his own head by writing memos to the king reporting improper activities by the government and certain officials. Eventually such behavior earned him yet another exile, from which he was not pardoned until 1668, only three years before his death in 1671 at the age of 85.

His years of exile were spent in his countryside home, were he studied and wrote poetry. His most famous sijo comprise a six-sijo sequence known as the Ou-ga (Song of Five Friends) and a 40-verse cycle titled Obu Sasi-sa (The Fisherman's Calendar). He and Chŏng Ch'ŏl (1536-1593) are considered Korea's finest poets; many critics consider Yun the finest sijo poet of all. Seventy-six of his sijo have come down to us. He holds an exalted position in Korean literature comparable to that of Shakespeare in English, Bashŏ in Japanese and Cervantes in Spanish. If you want to ponder an amazing coincidence, consider that all three of these other immortal poets were alive and writing at some time during Yun’s long life. His family estate in Cholla is now a museum.

Song of Five Friends

You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade.
Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask?

I’m told clouds are nice, that is, their color; but often they grow dark.
I’m told winds are pleasing, that is, their sound, but they fade to silence;
So I say only water is faithful and neverending.

Why do flowers fade and die so soon after that glorious bloom?
Why does green grass curl to yellow after sending its spears so high?
Could it be that only stone stands strong against the elements?

Look at this, it isn’t a tree, and it isn‘t a grass either;
How can it stand so erect when its insides are empty?
Bamboo, I praise you in all seasons, standing green no matter what

In summer fragile flowers bloom; in autumn they lose their leaves.
But Mr. Pine, see how he disdains winter’s frost and snow—
See him thrust himself to heaven and down to earth’s eternal spring.

Though you’re small, you glide so high, blessing everyone with light;
What other flame can beam so brightly in the blackness of our night?
Moon, you watch but keep silent; isn’t that what a good friend does?

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

Updated 080229

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