Medievalism and Joan Grigsby’s The Orchid Door
Published in: Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 17, No. 1 (2009) pp. 147-167
(An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 2008 MEMESAK International Conference in Seoul on November 7, 2008.)
Brother Anthony (Sogang University)
Neither the name Joan Grigsby nor the title The Orchid Door are
familiar to any but a very small handful of people in the world. To
begin with, for me too, there was nothing but the book itself.
Published in 1935 in Kobe (Japan), The Orchid Door: Ancient Korean Poems Collected and done into English verse by Joan S. Grigsby
contains poeticized English versions of more than 50 Korean poems
originally composed in Classical Chinese, almost all of them written in
(or a few even before) what we would call the Middle Ages and the Early
Modern periods, as well as a selection of anonymous Kisaeng poems, that
may date from a slightly later period than most of the other poems.
As the mysteriously worded title implies, Joan Grigsby was not the
translator of the poems. In fact, we now know that she knew no
Classical Chinese and only very little spoken Korean; the source of
almost all the classical Korean poems she reworked into English poetry
can be identified among the translations of Korean poetry that the
Canadian missionary James Scarth Gale published, either in his History of the Korean People (1927) or in the review Korea Magazine
(1917-19). The Kisaeng poems in the later part of Joan Grigsby’s book
derive from unpublished translations made by the Australian missionary
Jessie McLaren (research on this is still ongoing).
James Scarth Gale was born in Canada in 1863; he left Canada for Korea
in 1888. His models and references in English poetry were therefore,
inevitably, utterly 19th-century, ‘Victorian,’ and the style of his
writing and translations shows this clearly. He was, however, a
considerable scholar, deeply interested in languages. His ability to
translate the Classical Chinese poetry written in Korea was certainly
far above that of any other foreign missionary of his time. His
translations were made before the work of Arthur Waley began to be
published (Waley’s first volume, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems,
was published in 1918), so naturally show no influence from that
source. He retired to Bath (UK) in 1927 and died there in 1937. Most of
his translations of old Korean texts have never been published and
remain as manuscripts in his archive at the University of Toronto. A
project is now underway to publish them.
The following extracts from the Table of Contents to The Orchid Door indicates the range of the pre-medieval and medieval poems in Joan Grigsby’s book:
Yellow Birds. King Yoori. (17 B.C.)
In The Night. Choi Choong. (Early 2nd Century A.D.)
Tea. Ch'oi Ch'iwun (867 A.D. - ?)
The River. O-reuk. (6th Century A.D.)
Thoughts After an Audience With The King. Kim Pok Sik. (1075-1151 A.D.)
A Meeting of Friends in The Mountains. Kwak Yu. (12th Century A.D.)
Poems by Yi Kyu Bo. (1168—1241 A.D.)
Remembering The South. Oo T’ak. (1262-1342 A.D.)
China's Snow. Yi Che-hyun. (1287-1367 A.D.)
To-Wun (The Peach Garden). Chin Wha. (Circa. 1300 A.D.)
The Neglected Wife. Yi Tal--Ch'oong. (Circa 1385 A.D.)
Thoughts in a Country Retreat. Pyun Ke-ryang. (Circa. 1400 A.D.)
The Grave of So-Koon. Sung Kan. (1427-1456 A.D.)
White Banners. Sung Sam-moon. (Circa 1420 A.D.)
Thinking of Yi Chahyun in The Pyungsan Hills. Yi Whang. (Circa 1549 A,.D.)
Meditation in The Chiri Hills. Chung Yu-Chang. (1450-1540 A.D.)
While Traveling as Envoy to China. Yi Chung-kwi. (1564 - ?)
The Flowery Rock Pavilion. Yi-I. (16th Century)
We will now examine a few examples, a couple with the Classical Chinese
originals, but mostly simply set for comparison beside the more
conservative and ‘accurate’ English translations by James Gale (printed
first in each case). Joan Grigsby’s poems are sometimes very far indeed
from any notion of ‘faithful translation’ although at other times she
stays quite close to Gale.
First, the most radical example of rewriting, the oldest recorded song
from Korea, reportedly sung by a boatman’s wife in sympathy after
hearing from her husband the story of an old man who drowned in a
raging torrent despite his wife’s warnings:
I shouted to avoid the stream
But he unheeding plunged him in;
Down, deep beneath, he sinks from sight.
What shall he do? Alas for him! (Korea Magazine February 1917 59)
Gale notes that the original poem is highly praised but that a translation that brings out its qualities is impossible.
Lament of The Ferryman's Wife (Grigsby)
Grey willow trees that by the river sway,
Green reeds that whisper to the pebbled sand,
Will you not weep for her?
Wind that blows through the forest day by day,
River that flows so swiftly to the sea,
Did you not hear her cry?
Over the meadow, gay with iris flowers,
She sped; but, all in vain, she came too late.
Will you not weep, blue flowers? (32)
Clearly Joan Grigsby was encouraged by Gale’s note to create a
completely new poem, no longer spoken by the wife and centered on the
man but spoken by an observer in celebration of the grieving woman.
King Yuri’s Song (Gale)
O lilting, joyous yellow bird
You mate to live and love each other
While I, alas, unloved, unheard
Have lost my everything, sweet brother. (Gale, History 129)
Gale relates a traditional story according to which King Yuri had two
queens, one Chinese and one Korean. While he was absent, the queens
quarreled and the Chinese queen returned home in shame or disgust. The
king, hearing of this, pursued and overtook her but she refused to
return despite his protestations of love. Finally giving up, the king
was on his way home when he saw two orioles mating. This poem is said
to be the result.
Yellow Birds (Grigsby)
In yellow sunlight on the golden road
I stand alone.
All, all are mine—rice fields and golden road,
All but the one thing I desire.
In a tree by the road two yellow birds are mating.
Why must they sing so gaily? (33)
This time, Joan Grigsby expands the poem to bring into it the emotional
implications of the context, which are implicit in Gale’s explanatory
Poem composed by Sŏng Sammun prior to execution (Gale)
They beat their drums to hasten life away;
I turn my head toward the setting sun.
There are no inns within the Yellow Shades:
Where shall I sleep tonight? (Gale, History 243)
White Banners (Grigsby)
The long white banners flutter on the breeze.
Drums roll and boom to speed my life away.
Here, there and everywhere are grinning lips
And mocking eyes.
I watch the sinking sun.
Where shall I rest when all my pain is ended?
There are no inns within the Yellow Shades—
Where I shall sleep tonight no man can tell. (74)
Ch’oe Ch’ung: By Night (Gale)
The light I saw when I awoke,
Was from the torch that has no smoke;
The hill whose shade came through the wall
Has paid an unexpected call.
The music of the pine-tree’s wings
Comes from the harp that has no strings.
I see and hear the sight, the song;
Would I could pass its joys along! (Gale, History 186)
In The Night (Grigsby)
Light of the silver torch that has no smoke
Recalls me from the seventh world of sleep.
A shadow pine tree grows upon my wall.
On the white paper of my window screen
A shadow hill by shadow brush is drawn.
All life is shadow in my room tonight.
I know not if I wake or if I sleep–
Music breathes through the silence; can it be
Wind in the shadow pine tree, or a song
Drawn. from a hidden harp that has no string? (35)
Yi Kyu Bo: His reflection in the water (Gale)
Along the edge I walk and gaze into the water;
My windy image dances to my eyes,
My form vibrates in a hundred odd contortions.
I think of Su Tung-p’o and how he saw
Deep in the Ying-shui Pool, a hundred beards,
Two hundred eyebrows quivering clear. (Gale, History 197)
His Shadow in The Water (Grigsby)
Walking beside the river
I watch my shadow dance
From ripple to ripple in wild contortionings.
I think of So Tongpa by the Yungsoo Pool.
What did he see?
Only a windblown shadow?
Two hundred eyebrows and one hundred beards?
Or did he gaze until, beneath his shadow,
He found the wisdom I am always seeking? (54)
Yi Kyu Bo: Looking into the Well (Gale)
For long I have not looked into a glass,
And what I’m like, I’m scarcely free to say.
But now by chance I gaze into this well
And seem to catch a face I’ve seen before. (Gale, History 197)
Looking Into The Well (Grigsby)
Living alone, who cares to use a mirror?
I had forgotten how my face was fashioned.
Now, gazing in the well, I heave a sign
For one half recognised–
Can this be I? (54)
Yi Tal-Ch'oong (d. 1385) : The Neglected Wife (Gale)
I once gave you a folding fan, and you gave one most dear to me; but
now your heart is changed and all your love has turned a thousand times
away. No further joy have I, but thin and worn I think the long nights
through. And yet, though I am cast aside I do not blame you, for your
new wife has so many graces, dear. But think, how long does outward
beauty last? It flies, yes, swifter that the arrow's shaft. Can you not
see that she that blooms a flower today will yet regard you through a
twisted wrinkled face?
(Korea Magazine January 1918 12)
The Neglected Wife (Grigsby)
One moon of joy I knew,
And in the waning radiance of that moon
I gave you a folding fan.
Your love was lighter than the fragrant wind
Stirred by these sticks of carven sandalwood.
The moon sank down behind the city wall.
How bitter was the wine we drank at dawn
Soon came the whisper of a silken skirt.
Soon came the perfume of a jasmine flower.
Swiftly for you there rose another moon. (70)
Unacceptable if evaluated in terms of academic ‘verbal accuracy’, the
liberties taken by Joan Grigsby in recomposing these poems will be
better understood if they are seen in the context of her life and
entire poetic enterprise. She was not, after all, a scholar of Korean
literature. We need to be clear about what she thought she was doing.
Until a few months ago, there was only one person in the entire world
who really knew anything at all about Joan Grigsby’s life, and that was
her grand-daughter living in San Francisco. One or two specialists in
Korean translation studies had seen her name with the title of her book
but that was all. No one among them knew anything about who she was.
The book published in Japan in 1935 was almost impossible to find but a
New York bookstore specializing in Asian titles, Paragon, had published
a reprint of it in 1970 which can be found in a number of libraries. In
1998, Norton included some poems from it in World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time.
I finally discovered that what claimed to be a fairly full account of
the identity and life story of Joan Grigsby was available in a
biography written by her daughter Faith Norris, published by her
daughter Joan Norris Boothe in 1993 as Dreamer in Five Lands
after her mother’s death in 1992. However, a little genealogical and
other research soon revealed that Joan Grigsby had invented an almost
entirely fictional family history, that was repeated in her daughter’s
book, one that her grand-daughter had always assumed to be true until
contacted in 2008 by a nephew of Joan Grigsby living in England and
then by me a few weeks after him. This need not concern us today except
for a few significant details.
Having identified Joan S. Grigsby with the Scottish-born poet Joan
Rundall, her life story and her poetic career can be reconstructed. Her
complete published works are now available in my home page. The main
publications are Songs of the Grey Country (1916) and Peatsmoke (1919), both published in London, Lanterns by the Lake (1929) printed in Japan although published by a London publisher, and The Orchid Door (1935).
Born in 1891, Joan Rundall left Scotland after the death of her mother
in 1909, moved to London and in 1912 married Arthur Thomas Savell
Grigsby (Savell was his mother’s family name). In about 1921 they moved
to Canada, then in 1924 arrived in Japan where Arthur worked for Ford
Motors. Early in 1929 they moved to Seoul where they stayed until late
in 1930. Instead of returning to England, they took the ship for
Vancouver where Joan Grigsby died of cancer in 1937.
In the story about her family that she invented and told her husband,
Joan said that her mother had been an uneducated Hebrides peasant,
Janet McLeod, who had learned nursing in Edinburgh before becoming
matron in St. Ninian’s College for Boys, Moffat (south-western
Scotland). There she married a teacher who soon after became
headmaster, William Rundall. Her mother, she (falsely) claimed, had
died in 1902 when Joan was 12, her father then died a few months after,
in 1903 (that was correct), and she had lived on in the school with her
aunt ‘Fiona McLeod’ who had come to be the new matron.
This entirely fictional aunt (Joan’s mother in fact lived on at the
school with Joan until her death in 1909) bears the name of a Scottish
poet who may well have had a strong influence on Joan. In the late
nineteenth century and until 1905, Fiona MacLeod was thought to be a
Scottish Celtic visionary and romantic; her works were read together
with the poems of W.B. Yeats in the context of the Celtic Revival. Her
first novel, Pharsais, was published by the male Scottish poet
and writer William Sharp in 1894 and 6-7 further volumes of fiction,
poetry and drama followed. Sharp claimed to be acting as her agent
while she lived a secluded life in the Hebrides. Readers of the
period were enchanted by the marvelous weaving of Celtic-seeming
folklore, myth, vision, and personal observation in her prose and
Isla, Isla, heart of my heart, it is you alone I am loving—
Pulse of my life, my flame, my joy, love is a bitter thing!
Love has its killing pain, they say--and you alone I am loving—
Isla, Isla, my pride, my king, love is a bitter thing!
Isla, Isla, in the underworld where the elfin-music is,
There we shall meet one day at last, as the wave with the wind o' the south!
Then you shall cry, "My Dream, my Queen!" and crown me with your kiss,
And I to my kingdom come, my king, my mouth to thy mouth! (Sharp)
It caused a great shock when it was revealed in 1905, on Sharp’s death
in Italy, that the works attributed to Fiona MacLeod had in fact been
written by Sharp himself. Interestingly, her name is the first recorded
use of Fiona (Gaelic: ‘white’) as a woman’s name, perhaps her most
enduring claim to fame! In 1912, Sharp’s widow included the FM works in
her edition of her husband’s Complete Works.
The fictional female pseudonym, and the Celtic identity might both have
spoken strongly to the dreamer within Joan Rundall. Dr. Robert Irvine
has written (in a no-longer available Internet page):
Arnold once wrote: "no doubt the sensibility
of the Celtic nature, its nervous exaltation, have something feminine
in them, and the Celt is thus particularly disposed to feel the spell
of the feminine idiosyncrasy; he has an affinity to it; he is not far
from its secret." What links the Celtic to the feminine is their common
marginality to a public culture understood as predominantly masculine.
After all, the qualities Arnold accords the Anglo-Saxon ("steadiness",
practicality, rationality) are usually gendered masculine, the
qualities of the Celt (sensitivity, emotionality, imagination) are
usually gendered feminine. The Celt, one might say, seems designed to
be, not so much the partner of the Anglo-Saxon in their joint Imperial
project, as his wife. By adopting a female persona Sharp is
assimilating himself as author to the celtic world that his fictions
portray.... putting women at their centre, with a fair degree of
authority, but as exotic creatures, as inhabitants par excellence of
that "alien" celtic world Sharp is setting out to explore. Hence the
feminine pseudonym: this exotic world is one to which women might have
privileged imaginative access.”
The late-19th-century Celtic Revival is usually seen as one form of
Medievalism, in that the culture of an idealized distant past was
claimed to have been preserved alive in the remote Celtic regions of
the Scottish islands or the western Irish regions. In Scotland the
Ossianic poems of the 18th century continued to be read in this context
and the rise of the Irish Celtic Revival late in the 19th century with
Yeats at its head was paralleled in Scotland. There is a clear
connection with the wider Arts and Crafts Movement led by John Ruskin
and William Morris.
By the time Joan Grigsby published her first volume of poems in 1916,
Fiona MacLeod had been largely forgotten, especially in Scotland,
because it had quickly become clear that MacLeod / Sharp knew no Gaelic
and had no access to authentic Celtic lore. A letter to the New York
Times in 1912 from an irate Scottish critic, Hugh S. Munro, denounced
the “mystical moonshine” in which American critics still viewed ‘her’
work, which those in the know in Scotland viewed as “sheer
Joan’s earliest poems, in Songs of the Grey Country, include a few dramatized ballad-style laments set in the mouths of very Scottish figures:
Can I forget thee, Red Lover of mine,
When the peat fire burns no more
On the empty hearth and the sheeling door
Stands wide and dark, when the dawn-stars shine,
And the grief of a lonely heart is thine?
Red Lover, Ohone! Ohone! (38)
However, her initial nostalgia, dominating this book, was less for a
lost medieval age than for a lost childhood paradise, the hills around
her childhood home in the Lowlands with their associated history. There
are far more echoes of Fiona MacLeod’s style in Peatsmoke,
where Joan Grigsby develops several cycles of poems evoking fictional
love stories, with sorrows, separations and tragedies set in a remote
Celtic past, especially the ‘Love of Morag’ and the ‘Silver Clairsach’
series. The link with Fiona MacLeod is confirmed by the fact that every
little phrase in Gaelic used by Joan Grigsby has its parallel in FM’s
work. As Munro says, Sharp knew no Gaelic, he used a tourist’s
phrase-book. Joan surely knew less Gaelic still.
THE waves are calling o'er the sands,
They draw me down with pleading hands
"Thig an so."
They call as through the long, long years
With lover’s lips.
They sang to me of Earth's old tears
And sunken ships.
The stars are shining o'er the sands,
And Michael's heart still holds my hands,
Yet I must go.
For I have dreamed of nine grey waves
Sweeping sea flowers from sailors' graves
Across the shore.
And now they call me o'er the sands
“Thig an so,”
“Ma tha sin an dan” pleading hands,
I can but go;
My mother came of islands wild. (33)
Perhaps the nostalgia for a mythical Celtic Middle Ages has links with
nostalgia for lost childhood innocence? At the same time, the theme of
loss and longing in love as a woman’s inevitable destiny is always
strong in Joan Grigsby’s poems. When she came to write the poems
inspired by Japan in Lanterns by the Lake (1929), which is by far her most ambitious collection, she did something similar to what she had done in Peatsmoke in the sequence she called “The Seawater Carrier.” The original medieval Japanese tale, dramatized in the celebrated Noh play Matsukaze
by Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363—c. 1443), tells of a monk who meets the
spirits of two poor sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, brine makers who
died of grief on hearing of the death of the courtier Yukihira, who had
wooed (seduced?) both during his 3 years of exile in Suma. Joan Grigsby
eliminates Murasame and death from her tale, and simply writes poems
where two separated lovers pine for one another with no hope of meeting
Salt water spilt from my bucket
Splashes from stone to stone.
Will he come down from the castle
In the blue dusk that deepens
When day is gone?
My bare feet on the yellow sand,
What little prints they make—
Will he come down in the twilight
When the far hills are fading
And stars awake?
The wooden yoke on my shoulder
Bruises my flesh today.
Will he come down when sampan lights
Glimmer and boatmen are singing
Out on the bay?
He loves me. Ah! so a pine tree
Might to a grass blade bend
And, with the dusk wind whisper,
“Thou, who art almost nothing,
Shall be my friend.” (108)
Japan, of which she had heard years before from her mother-in-law, Kate
Savell Grigsby who had lived there for 4 years in the 1870s when her
husband taught law at Tokyo University, had seemed to Joan to promise a
uniquely beautiful, timeless ancient culture with humans and
habitations in complete harmony with nature. She tried to find that
myth during her years there and in the end found it lacking, destroyed
Early in 1929, the Grigsbys left Japan and came to Seoul. It must have
been bitterly cold winter, the streets would have been foul if not
frozen, the ordinary people’s houses had little charm, people were poor
and very unhappy under the Japanese yoke. Joan had promised to write a
few Korean poems for inclusion in Lanterns by the Lake. One of
them in particular stands out. Joan S. Grigsby has finally found her
paradise, not in the mythical clouds of an idealized Japan but solidly
embedded in the noise and pain of the Korean neighborhood just below
the house, with its starving, scavenging dogs:
High o’er the twisted streets and huddled alleys
The white stars tremble and, with night, reveal
The hidden beauty of this Eastern city—
Dream things that daylight or the gods conceal—
Jealous, perhaps, to guard some old enchantment
That only starlight and the night reveal.
Out of the narrow lane below my garden
The sounds of night arise, confused and wild,
Swift throb of drums, a mourner wailing, wailing ;
Men quarelling ; the sobbing of a child;
Or women beating clothes with wooden paddles
Or footsteps wandering, restless, weary, wild.
The white-robed forms move slowly, crowd together
About a chestnut stall. The brazier’s glow
Lights up black eyes and hungry, narrow faces
Below the high-crowned hats. They come and go
Wandering, chattering in darkened alleys
Like ghosts of men forgotten long ago.
Clatter and cry—hoarse voice of vendors calling
Their wares. The markets open for the night,
Gay china, yellow oranges, green cabbage
Spread below smoky lamps’ uncertain light,
Amid the ceaseless hum of surging chatter
That swells and falls upon the Eastern night.
Then—silence, for the market hours are ended,
Till the stray dogs begin, half starved and wild,
To fight for garbage. From some hidden hovel
Rises the wailing of a sickly child
And all night long across the Eastern city
Go footsteps wandering, restless, weary, wild. (94-95)
Joan learned certain lessons very quickly, recognizing in particular
the harsh realities of Japanese colonial rule, and the hardship endured
by Korean women in such a patriarchal society. Perhaps, therefore, we
might say that The Orchid Door signals a profound change in
Joan Grigsby’s medievalism. Instead of looking for a surviving dream,
she accepts that the medieval past of Korea is irrevocably lost, and
can only be recovered through scholarship and the academic work of
translation and commentary. The people she met in Seoul—Dr. Horace H.
Underwood, Bishop Trollope, Fr. Andreas Eckardt, Fr. Hunt, Jessie
McLaren—were all learned scholars, key members of the Korea Branch of
the Royal Asiatic Society.
The format she adopts in her book is in many ways amazing for a woman who had only received a rather sketchy education. The Orchid Door
has a 14-page Introduction to Korean history, and most of the poems
have notes introducing the author and commenting on the contents. In
fact, of course, the scholarship is entirely second-hand, her notes are
adapted from those of Gale. But the change is accompanied by a
continuing focus on the pain of women; the poems centered on such pain
come alive far more vividly than the rest and the Kisaeng poems are
clearly extremely precious for her as recording actual women’s voices.
The less than 2 years spent in Seoul must have been very important for
Joan Grigsby, giving her the courage to face life’s harsh realities in
new ways. Arriving in Vancouver in early 1931, the Grigsbys faced
tremendous challenges in earning a living, the curio shop selling Asian
art she opened soon failed, but luckily Arthur Grigsby became the
business manager of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where he was later
appointed curator. It is worth noting that his ability to relate with
Joan and her poetry might have helped prepare him for his later
encounters with the reclusive Canadian artist Emily Carr. If the
Gallery today possesses such a large number of her works, it is because
she felt that he understood her as no one else did.
For Joan, who had brought the unfinished book of ancient Korean poems
with her, life reserved more challenges. In later 1932 she was
diagnosed with cancer, one entire leg was amputated. She completed the
poems and notes while recovering from the operation and sent the
manuscript to her previous London publisher, Kegan Paul, who turned it
down as they turned down James Gale’s collection of Yi Kyu-bo poems at
almost the same time. Other publishers did the same. She was profoundly
We only have The Orchid Door because of female friendship. The
American-Japanese artist and poet, Lilian Miller, who had befriended
Joan in Japan and provided illustrations for The Orchid Door as she had for Lanterns by the Lake,
seems to have had the book published at her own expense in 1935. It can
hardly have sold many copies among the expatriates of Japan and Korea,
though Mary Taylor, in whose house, Dilkusha, the Grigsby’s had lived
in Seoul (it still stands), probably tried to help. These two women,
together with Jessie McLaren, obviously saw something very special in
Joan Grigsby and set out to help her. In her work, medievalism,
Scottish and Korean, becomes the affirmation of a modern woman’s
courage and dignity in the real world, beyond all her rather vapid
Gale, James Garth. “Kong-hu-in.” Korea Magazine (Feb. 1917): 59.
. “The Neglected Wife.” Korea Magazine (Jan. 1918): 12.
. History of the Korean People. Seoul: The Christian Literature Society, 1927.
Grigsby, Joan S. Lanterns by the Lake. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner; Kobe: J. L. Thompson, 1929.
. The Orchid Door. Kobe: J.L. Thompson. 1935
Norris, Faith. Dreamer in Five Lands. Oregon: Drift Creek Press. 1993.
Rundall, Joan. Songs of the Grey Country. London: The Year Book Press. 1916.
. Peatsmoke and other verse. London: H. F. W. Deane and Sons, The Year Book Press. 1919.
Sharp, William. “Isla.” 2000. April 15, 2008. <http://www.sundown.pair.com/