14 October 2010


Shijo (시조) is an ancient Korean form of poetry; it is descended from Chinese song lyrics, much like Japanese haiku. Shijo have three lines of fourteen syllables (or so), but generally have no rhyme scheme or particular meter.

It is often said that the first line sets the mood, the second line develops a plot, and the third line contains a twist. But it seems likely this tendency has been overblown by new enthusiasts, who have significantly changed the genre (it is now common to split the traditional three lines into six, for example).

Jeong Cheol (정철) wrote some particularly lovely shijo during the sixteenth century. He was a Confucian scholar during the Joseon dynasty of Korea, and many of his poems centered around his longing to demonstrate his piety by serving the King. Here are two of his best, from 영역 시조―한시선 (Old Poems of Korea: Shijo and Hanshi), collected by 김영락 (Kim Yong Nahg).

Examine the following poem and note how there is a very simple but deep story, and the third line is not a witticism or clever twist, but instead a more subtle turn to the same overall theme. Like the songs from which they are descended, these shijo tell a story - they don't play a joke on us, despite what modern poets of the genre may believe.

길 위의 두 돌 부처 벗고 굶고 마주 서서
바람비 눈서리를 멋대로 맞을망정
인간의 이별을 모르니 그를 부러하노라.

Two stone Buddhas stand face to face on the road,
Beaten by the bleak weather, naked and famished.
I envy them for not knowing what it is to part.

Here is a second, also lovely.

나무도 병이 드니 정자라도 쉴 이 없다.
호화히 섰을 때는 오는 이 가는 이 다 쉬더니
잎 지고 가지 꺾인 후론 새도 아니 앉는다.

None sits beneath an ailing tree, which cast a good shade.
When stately it stood, every walker took a rest there.
No bird will even settle on its boughs now bare of leaves.

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