Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn, Poet (1563 – 1589)


The Portrait of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn,
Courtesey of Kim Hyonjin

Written by Choi Jin-young
Professor of English Literature (emeritus), Joongang University

Hŏ Ch’ohŭi, Nansŏrhŏn (1563 – 1589), the most renowned woman poet of the Chosŏn Kingdom, was born into an aristocratic and highly intellectual family with brilliant father and brothers. Her younger brother, Ho Kyun who wrote a novel entitled Hong Kildong Chŏn, was instrumental in preserving her poems (213 pieces) in all. He compiled the book, Ho Nansŏrhŏn Chip which was given to a Ming Chinese emissary and poet, Chu Chi-fan (fl. 1595). Chu Chi-fan introduced her poems in China by printing them and with his introduction. The copy of the book in China was picked up by a Japanese merchant, Mr. Bundiiya Jiro, and in 1711 it became famous in Japan as well.

Young Prodigy Poet and Sorrowful Woman

Hŏ enjoyed a reputation as a poet, since the age of eight, when she wrote a poem about her dream being invited to the capstone ceremony of a palace and to compose a poem in classical Chinese. With this poem, she gained recognition as a poetic prodigy. However, after her marriage at the age of fifteen, as was the custom at the time, her life became a series of woes not only because of her unhappy personal life, but also because of the rigidly Confucian society she lived in. Her marriage to a mediocre, philandering, indifferent husband, her two children’s death one after another, and her mother-in-law’s coldness exacerbated her loneliness and sadness.

Furthermore, Confucianism, the predominant ethos of the society, dictated that a woman was to be confined in the inner quarters of the house, with no recourse to emotional comfort. A woman who read classics and wrote poems was considered an aberration, thus deserved no consideration. This was against her upbringing in her home before marriage. With so much misery in her marriage, despair, sorrow, and melancholy are deeply reflected in her verse.

The following comments of Yang Hi Choe-Wall, the author of Vision of Phoenix, The Poems of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn, sums up the insurmountable wall the poet had to face:

The combination of physical beauty and superior talent, coupled with a background of high education and an outstanding family, must have posed a real problem for Nansŏrhŏn in her efforts to adapt herself to the ideal image of a woman cast in the Chosŏn society mould. Here was a singular woman who read the classics widely and who was influenced more by Daoism than by either Confucianism or Buddhism. She was, nevertheless, like all her contemporaries, confined to the inner quarters of the house…The harsh conditions imposed by her confined and anxious existence in the real world apparently make it easier for her thoughts to enter the imaginary world of the immortals, which she seems to do constantly. Unable, of course, to transform her mortal condition to the supernatural, she satisfies her desires by expressing her sentiments in the writing of mystical poems.1

One of her poems called “Fisherman’s Home” is another example:

In the courtyard a sad eastern wind blows,
A tree over the fence is white with peach blossoms.
Leaning against the jade rail she years for home,
She cannot return.
Luxuriant foliage of fragrant plants merge into the sky.
Silk draperies and beautiful windows are shut and deserted.
Two streams of tear on the powdered face soak the scarlet blossom.
Beyond the misty trees north and south of the river.
Love does not end.
The mountains are long, the water is wide;
news does not come.2

Her poems, therefore, are infused with loneliness, sadness, and a longing for a free life. Her emotions were revealed in her poems; she expressed her profound longing for a dream world where immortals live in peaceful existence, a sign of a strong influence of Daoism she had internalized while reading classic Tang poetry.

One of her narrative poems, “A Woman’s Sorrow";

The plum trees by my window,
How many times have they fallen?
The winter night is bitter cold,
And snow, or some mixture, descends.
Long, long is a summer’s day,
And a dreary rain comes too.
And spring with flowers and willows
have no feeling for me.
When the autumn moon enters my room
and crickets chirp on the couch
a long sigh and salty tears
in vain make me recall the past.

In the following two stanzas the depth of her sorrow and longing are depicted.

It is hard to bring
this cruel life to an end.
But when I examine myself,
I shouldn’t despair so.

Leaning on the balustrade,
I gaze at the path he took-
Dewdrops glitter on the grass,
evening clouds pass by,
and birds sing sadly
in the green bamboo grove.
are the sorrowful;
but can there be anyone
As wretched as I?
Love, you caused me this grief;
I don’t know whether I shall live or die.3

The extant edition of Nansŏrhŏn’s collection is believed to the 1692 edition. The first Korean edition (1608) did not survive. The 1692 edition has been copied numerous times. This is from the 1913 edition.

Nansŏrhŏn was not a uniquely inventive poet. but, she developed her own indigenous style – a graceful, simple and sincere expression together with vivid imagination.

Because her life was strictly prescribed by Confucianism in upbringing as well as marital life, she suffered the dichotomy of two conflicting emotions, and drew spiritual inspiration from Daoism and Humanism. She dreamed of breaking away from social constrictions and becoming a free happy person to write poetry. Unable to find an outlet for her such wishes, she suffered continuous anguish, turning more and more to the dream (occult) world of immortals for consolation.

Two such poems are “Wandering Immortals” and “Stirred by My Experience."

“Wandering Immortals”
At leisure, with my two young sisters,
I go to pay my respects in Heaven;
Immortals of the Three Islands call to see us.
I command the Scarlet Dragon to be harnessed amidst the flower;
At the Purple Emperor’s palace we watch the Dart and Bottle game.4

“Stirred by My Experience”
At night in dream I climbed Mt. Pongnae,
My feet on the dragon of Ko-p’o bank.
An immortal with a magic bamboo cane
Invited me to Lotus Hill.
I looked down on the Eastern Sea,
As tranquil as a cup of water.
Beneath the lotuses a phoenix played the flute;
The moon shone on the golden jar.5

The influence of Tang Chinese classic poetry and Korean Daoism tinged with indigenous shamanism are felt more deeply in Hŏ’s verses. Hŏ’s mystical faith was rooted in the belief in the supernatural and the flight of the human mind toward the dream world of the immortals. On the other hand, there is proof that she felt deep concern for contemporary social affairs and her sadness she saw in the injustice. The following poem is a good example:

Surely she does not lack beauty
Nor skills in sewing and weaving.
But she grew up in a poor family
So good matchmakers ignore her.

She never looks cold or hungry,
All day long she weaves by the window.
Only her parents feel sorry for her;
Neighbours would never know of it.

A pair of golden scissors in her hand,
Fingers stiffened by the night’s chill.
She cuts a bridal costume for another,
Yet year after year she sleeps alone.6

Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn was not merely a poet of despair and melancholy, but also a poet of acute longing for a better world, in a dream or in the world where she lived.