The Orchid Door

Already a poet with 4 collections (and a book of children's poems) published, Joan Savell Grigsby received sets of literal English translations of old Korean poems from Dr. Jame S. Gale and from Jessie McLaren while she was living in Seoul (1929 - 1930). She planned to poeticize their style and hoped to have the book published by the English publisher (Kegan Paul) who had published her previous volume of poems about Japan and Korea, Lanterns by the Lake (1929).

After leaving Seoul and settling in Vancouver in 1931, she continued to work on the text and notes despite an operation for cancer in which she lost one leg. Finally, she could not find any British publisher who was interested in her work. A friend she had met in Japan, Lilian M. Miller, the artist who had provided illustrations for the previous volume and for this, undertook to have the book printed by the same company in Japan as had produced Lanterns by the Lake, presumably at her own expense, since the Grigsbys had no money

It was published in 1935.

Lilian had good commercial contacts in Japan. Mary Taylor, Joan's friend in Seoul, took a number of copies to distribute or sell in Seoul. A number of copies were sent to Joan in Vancouver. Joan Grigsby died in 1937. There is no reason to suppose that the book was ever commercially distributed in Europe or the US and it is now virtually impossible to obtain a copy, or find a library which has one. A limited (unauthorized) reprint made in 1970 by Paragon, a bookstore in New York, made the text a little more accessible for a time. It is no longer available. I have put the full text of the volume online to remedy this lack.

The Orchid Door is usually considered to be the first volume of Korean poetry in English translation ever published, although Joan Grigsby was not, of course, the translator. Still now, the more literal translations preserved in the archives of James Gale and Jessie McLaren have not been published, it was this passing poet from Scotland who was responsible for the first published translations of Korean poetry.

It remains true that what Joan Grigsby did with the translated materials she was provided with is an important question. Even without the text of many of the translations by Gale and all of those by Jessie McLaren, we can soon see from comparison with a number of translations that Joan Grigsby takes more than occasional liberties with what she was given. Rather, she freely reinvents the poems in her own terms. In that sense The Orchid Door should probably not be seen as a volume of "translations of Korean poetry" at all but as the fourth volume of Joan S. Grigsby's own poetic opus, this one entirely inspired by translations of Korean poems. There is little point in blaming her for inaccuracies, since accurate translation was not at all her goal. A good number of examples of Gale's versions alongside Joan Grigsby's adaptations, together with a closer discussion of this question by Professor Gari Ledyard, can be found here.




Collected and done

into English verse by


Illustrated by





The Orchid Door

Read the Introduction        
Read the Poems and Notes

The other illustrations

In the Night

China's Snow

Meditation in the Chiri Hills

Come Not at Dawn

The copy of the original edition of The Orchid Door which I own has an address rubber-stamped on the first page, showing that it once belonged to Mrs. Philip E. Spalding of Makiki Heights, Honolulu, Hawai'i. It does not take long to discover that her husband served as Chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Hawai'i 1943 - 1961. His wife Alice was the daughter of Anna Montague Cooke, "a leading patron of the arts, matriarch of a distinguished banking family" and the founder of the Honolulu Academy of Arts by the gift of her original house on Beretania Street. After her mother's death in 1934, her house passed to Alice Spalding and finally became a museum, library and study center for the Academy, with the name "The Spalding House" in honor of Alice Spalding, who bequeathed it to the Academy in 1970. Her mother's art collection forms the basis of the Academy's museum. Anna Montague Cooke had a special interest in Japan, expressed in her commission of  the Japanese Gardens, still visible behind the building in Makiki Heights, which now houses the Contemporary Museum.

Since Lilian Miller spent 2 years in Hawai'i (1936-8) after leaving Japan, it is not difficult to imagine how the book came into the possession of Alice Spalding. Given its perfect condition, I wonder if she ever read it.

Ornament on the last page