Poems of Korea

by Joan S. Grigsby

From: Lanterns by the Lake  (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 1929)


The Islands of Chemulpo

Korean Night

The Way to the Well

The Quince Tree

The Road to Peking

Love Made a Lotus Flower

Her Fan

Hairpins of Jade

The Gingko Tree

To the Old Lady

Joan Savell Grigsby and her husband Arthur Grigsby came to live in Japan in 1924. Most of the poems in Lanterns by the Lake were written in Japan, about Japanese subjects, but at the last moment, late in 1928, perhaps hearing of the poet’s plans to move to Korea, the publishers seem to have asked her to include some poems on Korean topics. The Grigsbys arrived in Korea in January 1929.


It may be that the boat from Japan brought them to what is now Inch’ŏn, then known as Chemulpo, which would explain the location of the first poem, though not its repeated use of the word “beloved.” Joan Grigsby does not write in her own person so much as in a variety of more or less dramatized voices. It would also be possible to hear in this poem someone straining to love what does not look like a very loveable seascape. The reference to “the swift brown currents swirling” is realistic, the tides produce very powerful currents in the area.

The Islands of Chemulpo

You will remember these beloved islands,
The wild acacia thicket, silver green
After the rain ; the stone pines on the high lands ;
The swift brown currents swirling round between
The white sand beaches of the little islands.

You will remember—there is no forgetting—
Those orange sails against the dying day,
When, on the ebb tide, homeward junks are setting
Across the Yellow Sea to Wei Hai Wei,
With little winds between their wet ropes fretting.

And you will dream of the queer freights they carry—
Globe fish and seaweed, pigs, perhaps a maid—
Some lovely, slant-eyed child who sails to marry
Her destined lover, lonely and afraid,
Part of the cargo any junk will carry.

Swift is the dusk. Stars wake above the water.
Deep in the shadow of acacia trees
Pale lanterns move. The sound of women’s laughter
Breaks through the whispered singing of the seas
Then dies. No sound is left but wind and water.

So shall you dream of these beloved islands—
Dusk and the stars above the Yellow Sea,
Wind in the wild acacias on the high lands.
Departing ship lights. Such a memory
Shall haunt your heart of these beloved islands.

Arriving in Seoul in the depth of winter, in January 1929, they soon moved into the upper floor of an extraordinary mansion named Dilkusha, situated in a large garden on a hillside above Seoul. The vast garden round the house could only be reached by climbing a steep, narrow, crowded, badly paved alley running between small houses. The sounds reported in this poem, and the emotions they evoke, suggest something of the poet’s disarray on finding herself transported from the refined, subdued orderliness of Japan to the uproar of Seoul and its markets. The result is powerful.

Korean Night

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.

The garden surrounding Dilkusha included in its walls a huge, ancient gingko that is still there, many other trees, a flowing spring, and a carved stone remaining from the time when there had been a temple there in Koryŏ times,

The Way to the Well

The way to the well—how beautiful it is
At twilight when the first pale stars appear
Above the garden and the quince tree seems
Heavy with hidden centuries of dreams ;
Haunted by footsteps that of old drew near
The well, before men made a garden here.

The quince tree by the well—so old, so old,
The black stem seems a thing of stone, cold, dead.
Yet the leaves murmur of forgotten hours
When women who were beautiful as flowers
Trod this same path, with bucket poised on head,
Down to the well where fallen quinces spread

Pale balls among the long, dew-scented grass,
And poppy petals scattered points of flame
Upon the path, the green moss overgrown ;
Or on the broken steps of rough, grey stone.
Did they too hear the quince tree, when they came,
Whisper to them some secret, haunting name?

The way to the well—how beautiful it is—
Haunted by wandering feet that cannot stay,
The red brick path by green moss overgrown,
The scarlet petals falling on grey stone,
The old, old quince tree, singing night and day,
Of women like white flowers who went away.


The references to autumn might be taken as the work of the poet’s imagination, since almost certainly these poems had to be written in the late winter and early spring of 1929, to be sent to the printers in Japan for inclusion in he volume as soon as possible.

The Quince Tree

The quinces are yellow lamps amid red leaves,
Gay festal lanterns that a faery hand
Hung there at twilight when the long leaves turned
From emerald to a mass of crimson flame,
Enchanted fire that through the dawn mist burned.
Beautiful is morning on the land
When quinces hang like lamps among red leaves.

And when the moon of autumn lights the hills
Silver green are the quinces in her light,
Like lamps among the leaves above the well
That mirrors them entangled with the stars.
See, there a red leaf on the water fell.
One by one they will fall through the autumn night.
Tomorrow at dawn the well will brim with leaves.

The quinces are yellow lamps amid red leaves.
Tomorrow, when they ripen, we will go
Gathering them. In baskets they will lie,
Pale yellow fruit, a little pitiful
And sad their bare tree set against the shy.
But we have seen and we will always know
Their light of festal lamps at autumn tide.


Soon after they arrived in Seoul, Faith Grigsby recalls going to watch the arrival down the road from the north of a great caravan from Mongolia. That event is not mentioned here, the road is sordid rather than exotic, but two things stand out. First, the unromantic evocation of the modern traffic, and the symbolic image of the shabby palaquin carrying one who had been “a courtier to a king,” in which it is hard not to see a reference to the humiliation of Korea, deprived of its king and of its independence. Second, we note the poet’s awareness that this road (leading north from Seoul’s “Independence Gate”) is continental, international, that Korea is part of the enormous Eurasian landmass, and that the fabled city of Peking is not so far away.

The Road to Peking

Between the hills it winds away—the high road to Peking.
The bullock carts go down it in a long, unbroken string ;
The ‘rickshas and the buses, a shabby palanquin,
An old man like a drowsy god nods wearily within,
Dreaming of days when men were proud to own a palanquin.
Now motor cars sweep by him and cover him with dust;
His gold-embroidered curtains are soiled with moth and rust
And no one asks his bearers who the rich man is they bring
Through crowds that throng at twilight the highway to Peking ;
For no one cares that once he was a courtier to a king.

Now the muleteers come slowly, riding on their heavy packs,
Small mules, half hidden by the loads, sweat streaming down their backs.
Ah ! the shouting and the straining and the pulling as they go,
Beaten when they move too quickly, beaten when they are too slow,
Like mules on the Peking highway three hundred years ago.
Beyond the city gateway, beyond the broken wall,
Where, from the shattered rampart, great blocks of stonework fall,
Into the purple mountains the long road winds away.
Do shadows from those ramparts lean to watch at close of day,
The lights that move and vanish along the great highway,

As once they watched and challenged the scout of Genghis Khan
Who rode through these same mountains down to the River Hahn,
Telling of greater countries and of a greater king,
Beyond the purple mountains and the roadway to Peking ?
Maybe that rampart echoed the song he came to sing.
Ah ! long, grey road you wind away below the saffron sky,
Luring beyond the city gate the dreams of such as I
To gateways at your other end where still the merchants bring
Their painted fans, their carven jade and many a silver ring
To market down the road of dreams—the high road to Peking.


Poems such as this and the one following it suggest that the poet found it difficult to find many subjects to write poetry about in her new land.

Love Made a Lotus Flower

Love made a lotus flower with seed of stars
And set it in a garden far away.
I, passing by upon a summer’s noon,
Gathered the flower and carried it away.

Cool in my hand the silken petals lay
And all night long, below the watchful moon,
I dreamed of love but, long before the dawn,
The petals faded with the setting moon.

Her Fan

This is her fan. It holds her perfume still ;
The frail, flower scent that lingered in this room
For such a little while.
Amd still, for me, it holds the strange, dim smile
That hovered on her lips and in her eyes ;
She who, in ways of love, was sadly wise—
She the adored, the unforgettable !


It would be possible to link this poem to the previous two, but the image of jade pins tossed into the dust might also be seen as an image of humiliated Korea.

Hairpins of Jade

Hairpins of jade and combs of gold !
Like stars they shine about thy face
Amid the lustre of thy hair,
And red pomegranate flowers are there
To hold the braids in proper place.

Hairpins of jade in silken coil
And combs of gold are very fair.
Yet I would toss them all away
To watch the wind and starlight play
A moment with thy loosened hair !

Ah ! pins of jade—where are they now ?
Tossed in the dust with none to care.
The silken braids are held in place
Upon my heart and there thy face
Shines like a star from clouds of hair.


The gingko tree evoked here is surely the huge old tree in the garden of Dilkusha, identified by the reference to the spring, and above all to the “carven altar,” a stone remaining from the temple that had once stood on the site. The reference to “brown, burnt grass” suggests that the poet had not experienced Korean summer, with its lush and well-watered vegetation

The Gingko Tree

              There are trees that love and dream, with
               the souls of men or, it may be, of gods.

Dawn, and the garden wakes. The gingko tree
Stirs in a dream while mists of morning shed
Their pallid veil above the cloud of leaves.

Noontide and throbbing heat. The branches spread
On brown, burnt grass their cool, green canopy.

Deep in the Healing Well their shadows lie.
Sometimes the blue flash of a magpie’s wing
Shines in the water or a green leaf drops
Onto the flat, grey rock above the spring.

Still dreams the tree in mists of memory.

Once to this carven altar women came,
Murmuring to the tree desires unknown,
Their green cloaks in the starlight glimmering.

And once, at moonrise, through the garden shone
The crimson light of sacrificial flame
That burned for dead men by the gingko tree,
While solemn chant of white-robed mourners fell,
Like wind among the branches, on the night,
Broken by beating drum or tremulous bell.

Still dreams the tree in mists of memory.
And these green boughs, like arms, below the sky
Outspreading, seek to fold the whole earth in,
One with the vision that their shadow veils ;
To gather up the lonely souls of men
Into a deeper soul’s serenity.

For there are trees and this, ah ! this is one,
More passionate than men. They love, they know
The hunger in a heart that asks of life
Always too great a thing ; that seeks to go
Always too far and so must go alone.

They love, they know and peace for ever falls
From these great boughs that still perceive afar,
Beyond the changing sky, the swerving wind,
Beyond the sunset and the morning star
A golden city girt with ivory walls.


There is something poignant about this glimpse of an entirely Japanese scene in a city that is so clearly not Japanese in the Grigsby sense of a magic, “faery” land of ancient beauty. The poet transfers to the elderly woman she sees her own strong awareness that Koreans are “an alien race” with characteristics evoked in the second poem, “Korean Night,” quite unlike the sophistication of the Japanese and the elegant calm of Japanese townscapes.

To the Old Lady

(A Japanese Garden in Korea)

The violet veils of twilight fall.
              I resting on your hill,
Look down into your garden
              And hear the streams that fill
Your fountain pool, your lotus tank,
              Your lake so crystal still.
Their silver voices sing to me
              Who rest upon the hill.
I see your servant slowly wash
              The path of smooth-cut stone
And sweep the scattered cherry leaves
              That summer winds have strown.
How cool the water is that falls
              Over the smooth-cut stone,
Down in you garden beautiful
              At dusk for you alone.

I see you blue hibachi set
              Beside the open screen,
The polished, dark verandah floor,
              The yellow mats within,
Your teacup on the table,
              Your plate of sugared bean,
You on the silken cushion set
              Beside the open screen.
What do you dream of, all alone,
              Here in this alien place ?
Another garden, far away ?
              Some unforgotten face ?
You are so old to dwell alone,
              So full of gentle grace,
You and your garden beautiful
              Amid an alien race.