Collected and done

 into English verse by


 Illustrated by





To the calligrapher who taught me

the Inner Language of the sages I

dedicate this book in gratitude.





400 B.C.



200 B.C.


T'sin (249-206 B.C.)

100 B.C.


Tsien-Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.)

(The name Chosen was also used until the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period.)

400 A.D



600 A.D. (See Page 14)


Three Kingdoms Period


800 A.D.



1200 A.D.



1300 A.D.


1600 A.D.


1644 - 1912 A.D.



 KOREANS trace the origin of their race into the mists of mythology. Picture, song and story are inspired by the legend of Tangoon who is said to have come from the Ever White Mountains in the year 2317 B.C. From linguistic and physiognomical indications the conclusion may be drawn that the original population immigrated from India and from Thibet. Throughout the centuries, however, influxes of wandering tribes have come from Manchuria, the Urals, Central Asia and, most frequently, from China. This has produced a somewhat complex racial mentality. After being stirred in the melting pot of the centuries, it accounts for the distinctive individuality to be detected in Korean art and literature. Though strongly influenced by China, it developed features undeniably its own.

 The true Korean who made the literature of his country had less regard for the material roots of his race than for its spiritual unfoldment. This has been largely along such lines of contemplation as are revealed in the Taoist teachings. It should, though, be added that kindred ideas are found in records which antedate the philosophy of Taoism by several centuries. Demonology has a1ways been a strongly motivating factor. The craving for some certain assurance of immortality also sounds a persistent note. Buddhistic influence arose, waned, and rose again. It was left to Confucius to furnish the solidity of Korea's mental life. Once the Korean mind began to assimilate the ethics of China's master mind a firm background was established, against which all their modes of thought seem to fluctuate.

Factual records become fairly reliable from the year 57 B.C. That year saw the opening of the period known as the " Three Kingdoms Period," lasting for six hundred years. The Three Kingdoms were Silla (s.e.), Pak'che (s.w.) and Kokuryo in the north. Pak'che was too primitive and war- like to produce any considerable form of culture. Kokuryo (High Hills and Sparkling Waters) had scholars who have left us much fine work; but Silla (Silken Fragrance) developed art, literature and music equal to any of her day.

 Much of the information regarding the civilisation of these vanished states is obtained from the " History of the Three Kingdoms." This was written under royal command in the year 1145 A.D. by the historian and poet Kim Poo-sik, of whom fuller information is given elsewhere in this book.

 The early poems of the Three Kingdoms period are mainly folk songs of a type too primitive to be of interest to the average reader. Only one or two are included in the present collection.

 During the fourth century A.D. a fine calligraphy began to develop. This fact is traceable to the influence of Wang Heuiji (321-379 A.D.), a famous Chinese penman. Admiration for his work inspired many a Korean calligrapher. To “walk in the forest of brushes” — i.e., to be counted among the company of fine penmen –came to be considered the highest ambition that a young man could achieve. From this developed an exquisite freemasonry of scholarship which lasted till the end of the eighteenth century and has not been equalled in later times.

 During the fifth century the spirit of patriotism became strong in the kingdom of Silla. Numerous instances are recorded of lives heroically sacrificed for the state. These inspired contemporary poets and also those of a later date. As a general rule, however, patriotism and military achievement have never take. foremost places amongst Korean literary themes.

 In the early sixth century Silla began to blossom into the flower of her artistic and literary splendor of which an ample heritage remains. Sol-go, Korea's greatest painter, was a man of Silla. Hi. pictures were to inspire poets throughout the following centuries.

 The " Pak-so Moon," or "White-Haired Composition," was written during the sixth century by a Chinese scholar. It is better known by its Chinese name of the "Thousand Character Book." It was used in Korea as the earliest book of instruction for young scholars and was still employed at the beginning of the present century.

 Music now began to assume a certain individuality. A record of Silla states that O-reuk, a noted musician of the south, came to the court bringing with him a twelve-stringed harp of his own making. For this harp special songs of a short and delicate type were written.

 The seventh century saw the rise to power in China of the great Tang dynasty. The effect of Tang influence is unmistakeable in Korean literature. In fact themes were so often Chinese in origin at this time that confusion is frequent. The student must distinguish carefully between Tang songs which became popular in Korea, and Korean songs written in Tang style upon historical or romantic events of the Tang period. The habit of classical allusion also affected Korean methods, though it never became so heavy and tedious as was ultimately the case in the work of the later Chinese scholars.

In 711 A.D. Kim Saing was born. He was a follower of Wang Heuji to whose work his calligraphy is frequently compared by his admirers. He gave a renewed impetus to the art, which reached rare heights. The relation of calligraphy to poetry is dealt with later in this Introduction, but I would emphasise here that it is, in the orient, the parent art of both poetry and painting. The results of Kim Saing's inspiring zeal were far-reaching and admirable. The eight laws that governed his own beautiful penmanship are all included in the one character for the word ETERNAL, which seems most appropriate since such exquisite achievement surely belongs to all time.

 Buddhistic teachings were now gaining a steady and increasing hold in the country. The effect might reasonably be expected to appear in contemporary literature but un- fortunately few writings remain from the 8th century. Stray records on memorial stones and temple bells indicate that scholarship had risen to a high level. The books of the time, however, were all destroyed.

 Very little definite information as to literary development is obtainable until the beginning of the 10th century. In the year 957 A.D. the Kwagu (Government Examinations) were first instituted. Through these Korea earned the high place she held for so long in the scholarly world of the orient. For one thousand years thereafter the Kwagu formed the centre of Korea’s civilisation. Success in these became the aim of every intelligent boy. The honor of "holding the brush in the presence of his Majesty " was the highest distinction attainable. The ambition to achieve scholastic eminence impregnated the life of ancient Korea and produced gentlemen of the old Confucian school and of the finest type.

There was a less desirable aspect to this, however, in the fact that after a time no man could hope to obtain any official appointment unless he could show high poetic ability. This led to the placing of many a "square peg in a round hole and resulted in much misgovernment. Ironically enough, many of Korea's finest poems were written by home- sick scholars exiled on account of their failure in positions which they were temperamentally unfitted to fill. There were, of course, notable exceptions. Certain poets proved to be fine statesmen. One of these was Choi Choong and another Yi Kyu Bo, both great men of the 12th and 13th centuries. Fuller details of their lives appear elsewhere in this volume, together with examples of their poetry.

" Choo-ja," or movable type, came into use in Korea about this time. I find mention of it as early as 1232 A.D. In that year Yi Kyu Bo had twenty-eight sets of the " Book of Ceremonies” printed. Movable type was in general use by 1403 A.D. A record of that year reads: " His Majesty, regretting the fact that there was so little opportunity for the extension of literature, gave command that there be established an Office of Types. The types were to be made of brass. From them books were to be printed."

 The 13th century saw much unrest in China. A Mongol emperor came to the throne in 1206 A.D., and in 1271 A.D. the Korea. crown prince married a Mongol princess. The refined attachments of the house of Tang no longer held Korean thought, which began to develop along somewhat different lines. The delicacy and "silken fragrance " had given place to a harsher, sadder mood. This was the inevitable outcome of the troubles through which the country was passing.

 With the end of the Three Kingdoms Period came the unification of Korea into one country. This naturally brought jarring conflicts from all directions, which were reflected in the literature.

 In 1408 A.D. the great King Tai-jong came to the throne. He was a ruthless man but a firm ruler. Under his steady guidance Korea quieted down and began once more to develop, especially along Confucian lines of thought. A stream of books poured into the country from China. Buddhism, from which people had begun to fall away, took renewed hold. Many fine scholars were at work.

 The 15th century saw the invention of the Korean alphabet. This enterprise was sponsored by King Se-jong, son of Tai-jong. Up till that time the Chinese characters had been exclusively used. These characters were beyond the intellectual grasp of the average middle and lower classes who were, therefore, cut off from the enjoyment of books. Se-jong decided that this was unjust. He met with consider- able opposition from his statesmen who felt that his plan threatened the dignity of the scholar class. Se-jong, undaunted, went ahead. He used the musical scale "koong," "sang, " "kak, " "chi, " "oo, " as his basis. The letters are hung on the Chinese Philosophical Wheel. Originally there were twenty-eight but three of these have been discarded. The student of Korean literature owes Se-jong a debt of gratitude since, from his day onward, songs, sayings, stories and speeches were preserved which might otherwise have been lost. This applies particularly to certain love songs that afford interesting indications of the life and customs of their times. These, being composed by dancing girls, concubines or secondary wives, would certainly have perished had not Se-jong's alphabet kept them alive.

 In the year 1498 A.D. occurred the Moo-o Sa-Wha, or destruction of the scholar class. The cause of this terrible massacre is traceable to a certain paragraph in the records of a noted historian named Kim Chong-jik. The paragraph alluded to the horrible crimes committed by King Se-jo, great grandfather of the reigning king, Yun-san. The allusion was in veiled form under the guise of a fable but was all too obvious to anyone cognisant of the facts. Yun-san, himself a villainous monarch, perceived and resented the justifiable though incautious criticism. Kim Chonk-jik was already dead when Yun-san read his fable but the king caused the scholar's body to be exhumed and beheaded. Several of Kim's disciples were then executed. The flame of resentment, thus ignited, spread with dreadful rapidity. At Yun-san's court was a certain minister, Yoo Cha-Kwag, a perverse and hideous creature with a passion for cruelty. He carried the king's revenge right into the scholar class. The finest minds, the noblest souls, the model. for generations to come, all were swept away before the Moo-o Sa-Wha, which left a trail of incalculable suffering and sacrifice behind it.

 The recovery from this disaster was slow and painful. Memories of the horrors they had witnessed haunted the few fine minds which were permitted to remain and the shadow is perceptible in their work. In 1545 A.D., however, King Im-jong came to the throne and set about raising the literary standards from the desolation into which they had been cast. Im-jong reigned only one year but during that time he gathered around him a fine company of men who have been reckoned among Korea's greatest scholars. Foremost of these was Yi-I or Yool-gok (Chestnut Valley). He is described as the master saint of Korea, and has left many austerely beautiful compositions.

 In 1550 A.D. Im-jong's successor, Myung-jong, instituted the first country school for the study of the sacred books. During the centuries which followed many such "study halls " were established. Each was dedicated to some noted saint and sheltered his spirit tablet, a small wooden plaque on which his posthumous name, or name in spirit life, was written. Sacrifices of food were offered before this tablet. Scholars of the district met in the hall to discuss the sacred writings, to study and to teach. The first of these schools was dedicated to Master An Yoo (1287-1350 A.D.). An Yoo's zealous observance of Confucian teaching and his own high achievements made him a source of inspiration to later generations. For several centuries these study halls exercised a stimulative influence on literacy and religious thought but later on various abuses invaded them, with the result that nearly all were abolished. The finest centre of learning that Korea ever instituted was the Confucian College. This stands as a symbol of all that the country owes to the teachings of Confucius—religion, literature, music, ethics of conduct, family relations, civilisation itself. There is no doubt that all of these eventually developed with the touch of independent and humorous individualism which is the hallmark of Korean psychology. But neither is there any doubt of the fact that their roots were in the teaching of China's master mind. As contact with this influence decreased, the splendor of its illumination faded from Korea.

 It is difficult to specify any date as marking a definite onset of decadence. Much of the 16th century was occupied by warfare. The year 1600 A.D. set the usurper king Kwang-hai on the throne. He was finally exiled to Quelpart Island where he fretted out his wretched life for eighteen years. He wrote many poems, some of which show consider able merit.

Great names emerge sporadically from this century, notably that of Yi Chung-kwi whose life and work marked a short space of peace which seemed to promise a return to scholarly pursuits.

 The 17th century saw Korea's first real contact with foreigners when a Dutch ship was wrecked off Quelpart Island. In 1627 A.D. came the Manchu invasion. From this brave men arose, and of it poets sang, but not with the contemplative beauty that belonged to the earlier days.

 Notable scholars of the 18th century were An-chung- pok and Hong Yang-ho. Hong, as the result of political intrigues, was banished to the north, and while in exile wrote a satirical review of contemporary conditions under the guise of a poetical essay. It was called " Letting Go the Wild Geese " and is full of clever double-edged allusions which, however, have little significance for the casual reader. The 18th century was less remarkable for book production than for the setting up of memorial stones. This ancient custom was revived all over the country. Some of the stones are beautiful pieces of work and the lettering on them is finely executed. Father Eckhardt has dealt exhaustively with them in his book, "History of Korean Art" (E. Goldston, London, Eng.).

 In 1776 A.D. King Chung-jong came to the throne. He was noted throughout the orient for his erudition, and he halted for a few years the decline of learning. He held a great literary festival in Seoul, the capital city of Korea. Contests in penmanship and in rhyming characters took place.

 But with the passing of Chung-jong and with the dawn of the 19th century a change set in. As gradually more foreigners entered the country western usages began to gain foothold. The old sense of values gradually disappeared. Scholarship was no longer the most important factor in the national life.

 Slowly but surely the breach widened between the ancient times and the new. On the one side of this gulf stood the Korean of the old school, Confucian gentleman, scholar, dreamer, idealist, whose spirit wandered frequently and far into the realms that are called " unreal." Opposed to this dignified figure of the past appeared the youth of the present day Korea. These two scarcely comprehend each other's speech. The breach widens so rapidly that the youth is quickly losing sight of the ancient silk-robed scholar.

 Before the end of the 19th century the history of Korean literature, as individual to that country, may definitely be said to end. Whether a new revival will develop out of the modern educational methods as they are now applied remains to be seen. The aim f the present volume is to present to the west a small portion of the ancient beauty of this little known comer of the orient.


 The poems in this book do not profess to be literal translations from the Korean. Such would offer little of interest or beauty to the average western reader. This point is illustrated by the following literal rendering:

 Oriole Song

 This month, third month, green willows,

 Oriole sings.

 Butterfly passes, silent, flower seeking.

 Boy, bring zither, must sing.

Taken as it stands, the above seems merely a bald suggestion of ideas. The Korean, studying such a poem in “picture writing” or ideographs, fills in, from these, a wealth of color, light and sound. The result is the perfect spiritual union of poem, picture and calligraphy which the oriental mind habitually creates. I have endeavored to fill in, with words, just sufficient of the picture necessary to render the poem acceptable to western minds. I have striven to avoid, as far as possible, the use of additional imagery. Here and there, however, certain additions have proved inevitable in order to avoid obscurity. In such cases comparison has been made with the usages of contemporary poets and of the conventions of the period under consideration. All available information has been studied regarding the poet, his scholastic standing, the conditions of his life and the circumstances under which the particular poem came to be written. Resultant facts have been used to reconstruct a background.

 Compared to many of the poems in this book the “Oriole Song" is practically complete as it stands. The following has been considered a legitimate method of filling in the gaps that result from translation;-

 Oriole Song

 This month, third month, willow trees grow green.

 The oriole is singing. I have seen

 A butterfly go by on silent wing,

 Seeking a flower and then another flower.

 Bring my zither, boy, for I must sing.

 The contention may possibly be advanced that the use of English rhyming forms is undesirable in the adaptation of oriental poetry. I am, myself, still somewhat undecided on this matter but would submit that the best authorities appear to differ. Professor H. A. Giles used rhymes most successfully throughout his "Chinese Poetry in English Verse." Arthur Waley, on the other hand, avoids it because he says "it is impossible to produce in English, rhyme effects at all similar to those of the original." Harold Gould Henderson, in his recently published "Bamboo Broom," a volume of direct translations from the Japanese haiku, uses rhyme with exquisite results. At present I stand between the two opinions.

 Korean poetry, like all Korean art, possesses a certain individuality which sets it apart from either that of China or of Japan, although it owes a great deal to the former and has certain affinities with the latter. It demands, however, different treatment. There are Korean poems which glide almost inevitably into English rhyme forms. There are others for which only blank verse seems to convey the slow- moving thought developed therein.


 The serious student who wishes to assimilate something of the vanished culture of ancient Korea is wise to turn his back upon the modern "westernized" orient. Only so can he hope to unlock the gates which have been closed upon the mysterious charm, the elegance, above all the scholarship, which was once the "Land of Morning Calm."

 Intellectual comradeship between men of scholarly mind is probably the highest form of friendship the world knows. It was the principle basis of Korean poetry. It exercised n immense influence over the literature. These exquisite relationships were founded upon mutual endeavor, high achievement and sincere critical admiration. Two youths of kindred ambitions would decide to study and to enter for the Kwagu, or Government Examination, together. They would then take the "Oath of the Peach Orchard," the oath of eternal friendship, which is binding throughout life and beyond death. From such roots sprang some of Korea's rarest literary flowers. Mutual encouragement and informed criticism kept the standards high. When one friend died the posthumous tribute offered by the other often touched great heights.

 Love poems were practically ruled out so far as the scholar was concerned. Discursive essays in poetic form were popular. These are tedious and offer little attraction to the western reader. The same applies to certain political satires which, though clever, are useful only to the student who seeks a background for the literature.

 The subjects of the Korean poets may therefore be classed roughly under three headings: meditative poems (frequently fantastic in theme) ; poems of friendship, including posthumous tributes and laments; and humorous or whimsical poems. Of these last only a very few are susceptible of translation.

 Among the meditative poems the favorite subject is undoubtedly the moon. The Korean throughout the centuries has been enchanted by the moon. He never wearies of inventing new similes by which to describe her, "The Amber Moon," " The White Jade Moon," "The Garden of the Moon," "The Smokeless Torch." These and more florid imageries appear so frequently that discrimination has to be used in order to avoid tedious repetition. It must be admitted, however, that Koreans have ample excuse for this infatuation. The clarity of the moonlight in Korea has a magical quality which turns the most squalid village into a “street of jade.”

Another delightful form of intellectual comradeship was found in the groups of scholars who gathered around the Su-wun, or country study halls previously mentioned. One group would spend many years studying or composing under a chosen leader.

 In this connection a story is told of Yi Chung-kwi who, in addition to being a successful statesman high in court favor, was also the leader of a group of noted poets. The story serves to illustrate the mode in which many poems of that day (circa 1570 A.D.) were made:-

 On one occasion Yi was sent, together with his followers, to meet a visiting envoy from China, one Choo Chi-pun who was also a famous master of the pen. They met at Pyeng-yang, a city some distance to the north of Seoul, the capital. Choo Chi-pun stepped from his palanquin, greeted the assembled poets and especially Yi Chung-kwi, whom he requested to compose him a poem of a hundred stanzas before cock-crow the following morning. This may have been a joke or a piece of deliberate malice on the part of the Chinese scholar but, in either case, Yi took the challenge seriously; and, as soon as Choo Chi-pun. retired, called his group of disciples into consultation. If the poem was not made, Korea's scholastic reputation would "lose face "; yet Yi, a man of deliberate thought, did not feel equal to composing so long a poem on such short notice. One scholar suggested that each member of the group should write a part, the results to be pieced together. This suggestion was not acceptable. Finally one, bolder than the rest, Cha Chul-loi (The Cart) said,

 " I who am already a fool, cannot suffer from being regarded as an even greater fool. I will try." He called for a tall screen, a brazier, a bowl of wine and a fan. Han Suk-pong, a famous calligraphist, sat outside the screen with a roll of fine paper and an ink stone. Cha took a long drink, waved his fan, retired behind the screen and hummed awhile to collect his thoughts. Then came inspiration and the "fool" sent the poem of one hundred stanzas tripping off, while Han dashed the characters down the scroll. It is said that Cha's topknot could be seen bobbing up and down behind the screen, keeping perfect time to his verses as he chanted them off one by one. The poem was an exquisite production. When it was finished the scroll was rolled, sealed and carried to Choo Chi-pun who had only just fallen asleep. On being wakened and presented with the poem he was so excited that he immediately began to read it aloud and the old record says that "the delight of it absorbed his thoughts of sleep and carried his soul up into the ecstatic regions of saints and sages."

 Another story is told of a group which met on a summer day in 1709 A.D. Two scholars, Yi Chi-chon and Cho Kwan-a-tjai, were sitting together in a garden pavilion. Cho, writing of the occasion, says that "gradually other and more certain scholars arrived" and presently the poet Kim Mong Oa came, riding on a bull. As they sat in the pavilion, discussing the ancient wisdom, Kim Mong Oa wrote a poem on the subject of the meeting. Remembering the afternoon in later years Cho painted a picture of it. This picture is considered in Korea as being almost equal to the famous Chinese painting of "A Refined Gathering in the Western Garden" which depicts a similar gathering of Sung scholars in 1070 A.D.


 It is impossible, of course, to convey in a foreign language the style of each separate poet as found in the original. There are, however, certain typical trends which are susceptible of somewhat elastic grouping.

 We find, for instance, that the poems of scholars who wrote at leisure out of the contemplative silence of a retired life are of a more austere imagery than those of the courtier whose work was apt to be overloaded with simile and the conventional usages of his day.

 The "double meaning" phrase was a favorite trick of such writers and sometimes became florid, though when kept within bounds it is often beautiful and indicative of psycho- logical reactions to life and conditions. An understanding of its many different usages was a study within a study and indispensable to the art of poetry. Not only the phrase itself but its grouping and associated ideas contributed to the picture. The pun, a frequent resort of Japanese poets, is rare in Korean work, but the metaphor or figure of speech was often almost a short poem in itself.

 Although the scholar class eschewed love between the sexes as a subject for their verse, love poems of considerable beauty are found in Korea. Certain of these may appear somewhat florid in contrast to the austerity of those on other themes. The reason for this is that most love poems were made by secondary wives, concubines and dancing girls, whose mentality would naturally be of a different calibre from that of the more cultured poet.

 The writing of verse was an instinctive mode of self- expression with the ancient Korean and the poetry of Korea offers a very wide field to the student. The present collection does not profess to do more than furnish some hint of the beauty yet to be gathered. If this hint is even vaguely conveyed the work has not been futile.


 I would express my indebtedness to Dr. Jame S. GaIe of Bath, England. His literal translations have supplied a very large part of the material on which these poems are based. His scholarly "History of Korea" has also been of invaluable assistance. Father Andreas Eckhardt's "History of Korean Art" is another source of information which must be gratefully acknowledged, besides certain publications of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

 I also owe much to the kindness of the late Right Reverend Bishop Trollope, D.D., of Korea, to Dr. W. A. Noble, Ph.D., and to Mrs. C. I. McLaren, residents of Seoul, Korea. All these gave me helpful information and encouragement.

 Lilian Miller, who illustrates this book, has been very generous in making me free of historical and literary notes which she collected while living in Korea. Furthermore, her criticism and constructive suggestions regarding the poems themselves have been most helpful and encouraging and I am correspondingly grateful to her.