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For thousands of years Koreans have strived to become masters of the written and spoken word. Koreans pride themselves on their long-standing literary traditions and value the many genres, forms, and styles that are native to Korea. One of the longest standing traditions that Koreans still practice today is Sijo poetry.
Koreans began writing Sijo poems during the late Koryŏ dynasty (fourteenth century) and were written in Chinese characters by well-educated Korean aristocrats. Later, after the invention of Han’gŭl during the Chosŏn Kingdom, Sijo became increasingly popular and readily available to a wider audience. In addition to being poetry, many Sijo poems were even used as lyrics and were accompanied by long drawn out melodies.
Sijo poets incorporated several different themes into their poems. Most of these themes highlighted Confucian values including: loyalty, filial piety, respect, humanness, and a love for nature. But other themes such as romantic love did creep in from time to time.
Sijo poetry follows a strict, but simple poetic form. They are typically only three lines long and are composed of 40 — 50 syllables. The syllables are grouped into twelve sections, four per line. Each line is then divided into two longer sections. A typical Sijo looks like the following (the numbers represent the numbers of syllables).
Thousands of Sijo have been written through the ages, but here are some samples of the more prominent ones.
Admiral Yi Sun-shin wrote the following Sijo in the 1590’s during his campaign against the Japanese while on an island fortress in seas just south of Korea. Revered as Korea’s greatest naval commander, Admiral Yi strived for excellence on and off the battlefield. He kept a detailed journal and frequently wrote poems like the one below.
At Hansan Island Fortress
All alone, I see the moon so bright, as I sit on fortress walls.
My sword held close tonight I keep the watch with anxious heart.
Yet somewhere in the darkened night, a pipe lulls worry away.
한산섬 달 밝은 밤에, 수루에 혼자 앉아
큰 칼 옆에 차고, 깊은 시름하던 차에,
어디서 일성호가, 나의 애를 끊나니.
Of the thousands of Sijo, the most famous one is attributed to Chŏng Mong-ju. Sentenced to death because he would not betray the Koryŏ king that he served, Chŏng refused to join the coup d’état that would eventually usher in the Chosŏn dynasty. This moving poem has become the quintessential example of Confucian loyalty and sacrifice. Dr. Mark Peterson, an ardent advocate of Sijo, frequently tells this moving story of Confucian virtue. The following is his translation of the poem.
Though I die, and die again; though I die one hundred deaths;
Long after my bones have turned to dust; whether my soul exists or not;
My one red heart, forever and always loyal to my lord, will never fade away.
이몸이 죽고 죽어 일 백번 고쳐 죽어
백골이 진토되어 넋이라도 있고 없고
님 향한 일편단심이야 가실 줄이 있으랴.