|The Tragic Sublime and the Bleached
Consciousness: Poetry of Chong Chi-yong
A snowstorm buzzes and throbs
Like a swarm of bees;
And in a village, measles flourish
Chong Chi-yong is one of the most prominent figures in
the history of Korean literature. His poetic career reached its peak in
1930's, but at the age of 49, the Korean War broke out. He was kidnapped
and taken to the Communist North. He was imprisoned somewhere in Pyongyang
with other writers such as Lee Kwang-soo and Kye Soon; and a little later,
he died in an air-raid.
If Chi-yong had not been born into the colonial period
and victimized by the war of ideologies, he would have left us a far greater
number of remarkable poems. Such a presumption is proved to be true by
the fact that the two books of his poems make a substantial chapter of
Korean literary history.
The excellency of Chi-yong's poetry has been praised
by many critics. Yu Chong-ho called him "the father of modern Korean poetry";
Oh Tak-Beon said that he was "the spiritual godfather for the poets who
fostered modern Korean poetry, such as Mi-dang, Doo-jin, Mok-wol, Chi-hoon,
and so on." Moreover, Chi-yong's influence is still palpable among contemporary
poets like Kin Choon-soo, Park Chae-sam, Hwang Dong-Kyu, Oh Se-young, Cho
Chong-kwon, and so on.
Some critics, however, whose foremost pursuit in a poem
is its didactic sense and "han," which is closely related to a sentimental
lapse, adversely judge Chi-yong's poetry as "nothing but a play of words."
Even Choi Dong-ho, who objects to the above criticism, points out a few
reservations about Chi-yong's poetry. He claims, in his remarkable essay,
"Chong Chi-yong's Changsu Mountain and Paengnok Lake," that "although his
sensibility and language were new, it is questionable if his fundamental
attitude was progressive," and that "his poetic subject and fashion do
not correspond with each other." Hence, Choi Dong-ho concludes that "the
true evaluation of Chi-yong's poetic achievement will be possible only
through a perspective that can simutaneously penetrate both his acute sensibility
and his seemingly incompatible human conflicts."
In this essay I shall concentrate on three themes of Chi-yong's
work: what composes his poetic subject, whether it is truly incoherent
or organically related with the form through which it is rendered, and
furthermore, the humanistic significance that lies in his acute and exquisite
The predominant picture in Chi-yong's poetry is natural
scenery; and it consists of images of mountains and valleys, darkness and
stars, wind and clouds, flowers and a hometown, streams and sea. It can
leave a different impression in each reader's mind; but, for me, the natural
scenery in Chi-yong's poetry seems more beautiful and sublime than the
real one. It is recreated through the intuitive eye of the poet observing
the existential meaning and the beauty of objects, and through the imagination
that intensifies and perfects them.
Chi-yong wrote about mountains, trees and flowers, rain
and clouds, snow and ice, river and sea since he could find in the divine
harmony revealed in them a moral phenomenon which can not be seen elsewhere.
As in Wordsworth's poetics which shows a remarkable similarity
to the oriental cosmic view, Chi-yong might have believed that God is revealing
Himself through the harmonious beauty of nature and that man's moral character
and emotion are formed by participating in or projecting his consciousness
to this harmony.
According to Wordsworth, whom Chi-yong once studied when
reading English literature, 'what is most basic, distinctive, and valuable
in man is an instinctive emotional and imaginative capacity that responds
to the beauty, good, and order in the concrete world of nature.' Therefore,
the primary aim of Wordsworth's poetry is to portray man, whose passions
are incorporated into the beautiful and harmonious forms of nature and
who is infinitely delighted with these forms. Besides, Wordsworth's theory
that the proper language of poetry must be "a selection of language really
used by men," so easily comprehended and more durable, is closely related
to the poetic theme mentioned above. The vain urban life and the technical
character of specific occupations foster associations in us that are accidental
and temporary rather than basic and permanent, and these associations color
Wordsworth's "a most lasting idiom" is the language found
among people whose associations and emotions have been molded by "the permanent
forms of Nature" and who hourly commuicate with the best objects in Nature.
The subject of poetry, according to Wordsworth, then,
should be concerned with the permanent and elementary aspects of nature;
and the manner of poetry should be a language that can effectively have
the permanent and harmonious form of nature to influence the eternal and
essential qualities of human nature.
Therefore, according to Wordsworth, the value of poetry
is judged on the ground of how acutely it grasps the divine phenomenon
taking place between man and nature by its insight and how effectively
it communicates this to us. Hence, we can call poetry the most important,
meaningful, and qualitative quintessence of the human emotions.
Such poetics of Wordsworth is discovered in Chi-yong's
poetry, incorporated into his ulterior motive to recover the emotional
identity of Koreans.
Let us consider two poems concerned with a hometown which
are most familiar and well known to us.
The place where a rill, babbling old tales,
Meanders on eastward toward the end
of a broad plain
And a mottled bull ox lows
In dusk's plaintive tones
of golden indolence式
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?
The place where ashes grow cold in a clay brazier
While over empty fields the sound of the night wind
drives the horses
And our aged father, overcome with drowsiness,
Props his straw pillow式
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?
The place where I got drenched
in the rank weeds' dew,
Searching for an arrow recklessly shot
In the yearning of my earth-bred heart
For the sky's lustrous blue式
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?
The place where little sister, dark earlocks
Flying like night waves dancing in a fairy-tale sea,
And my wife, not pretty but passable
and all the year barefoot,
Bent their backs to the sun's tingling rays and
gleaned ears of grain式
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?
The place where sprinkled stars
wend their way in the sky
Toward sand castles just beyond our ken,
while beneath drab roofs,
hoary crows cawing past,
People sit, softly murmuring,
round the faint firelight式
Could it ever be forgotten, even in one's dreams?
The natural landscape in this poem is described in "the
most lasting idiom" of language which is so plain and common that it almost
sounds primitive. The emotional opulence is almost overflowing, yet immaculately
controled. It presents the typically Korean pastoral scenery inspired with
rural naivety and humbleness.
The peculiarly Korean landscape composed of local images
deconstructs all oppressive powers and generates a poetic space that is
more liberating and simple, and where the most essential and permanent
part of our mind is touched. So the poem leaves an indelible impression
in our mind and stirs a sea of emotion from the deepest.
The ox lowing "In dusk's plaintive tones/of golden indolence"
in the place where "a rill, babbling old tales/Meanders," and the old father
listening to "the sound of the night wind" while drowsing on his "straw
pillow" represent the peaceful image of the lost paradise.
The arrow shot from the black soil toward the blue sky
is an archetypal symbol of human desire.
The earlocks of little sister flying in the autumnal
field compared to "night waves dancing in a fairy-tale sea" suggests the
simple and primitive beauty of the gleaning sister and the barefoot wife.
In the final stanza, the faint firelight gleaming from a thatched house
is brought into a parallel with Milky Way created by scattered stars and
is endowed with primitive beauty and permanence.
The "drab roofs" over which we hear "hoary crows cawing
past" is the archetypal scenery of Korean winter and stands for the primitive
beauty that finds a correspondence in "Hometown." The crow flying over
the wintry sky leads us back to the state of primitive innocence with its
blackness. As there is no artificially-made urban splendour and metaphysical
hypocrisy, we find redemptive freedom and a feeling of relief. We even
feel warm happiness in the plain and primitive beauty of the pastoral indigence.
Therefore, the Poet wanderer in a city sings a nostalgic tune pining for
the "hometown" that he cannot ever forget, even in his dreams.
"Hometown" shows a great deal of affinities with "Nostalgia,"
not only in style but also in theme and language.
Home, I've come home,
But not to the home of my longing.
Wild pheasants brood eggs,
And cuckoos call in season,
But the heart doesn't have a hometown式
A cloud floating toward a distant harbor.
Even today when I climb alone
to the end of the mountain,
White-flecked flowers warmly smile.
While grass flutes blown in my youth
yield no sound式
On parched lips, so bitter.
Home, I've come home;
But only the sky of my longing
is a lofty blue!
This poem does not try to reach for the neo-platonic immortality
to bring man and nature together as Wordsworth's poetry does, but delivers,
with intense lyricism, a sense of the loss of the place where one should
belong. However, as Kim Hak-dong points out, it still pursues permanent
beauty. The pre-eminent feature of the images of nature that fills the
poetic space, such as "wild pheasants," "cuckoos," "flowers," and "the
sky," is unchangeability.
The poet-narrator wearing the mask of Chi-yong, is a
being like "a cloud floating toward a distant harbor." He cannot identify
himself with nature because of his dull sensibility blunted by the vagabond
life; however, he has ongoing affection for the permanent beauty of the
hometown. The pastoral scenery of the hometown in the poem creates even
a stronger impression of its unchangeable beauty by being juxtaposed with
the inner state of mind of the poet, who is wandering like a cloud.
If Chi-yong had consumed his poetic endeavor only in evoking
the heavily sentimental feeling of the loss of the hometown, as in the
poems like "Nostalgia" and "Hometown" and in trying to overcome the feeling,
he would not have become such a commanding presence in the history of Korean
In the next stage, although he does not cease to look
into the permanence and beauty of nature, he begins to project fortitude
and integrity of human being onto natural objects. The poem "Orchids" provides
an excellent example of such a process:
The color, rather,
of pale black ink.
Over orchid leaves
Come dreams and fine mist.
Have lips closed式
open in the dead of night.
Open eyes in starlight
and again lie down.
Can't help their bare elbows.
Over the orchid leaves
Comes a light breeze.
The orchid leaves
Furthermore, in Paengnok Lake, he establishes a poetic
realm as clear and transparent as water, projecting the meaning of life
and its moral value to natural objects such as the summit of a mounains,
trees, graceful wild flowers, alpine plants, and roebucks, which symbolize
longevity in Korean folklore. This extremely refined poetic world represents
the tragic sublime closely related to human will and perseverance.
Kim Hak-dong explains such a poetic process as "a phase
of refraining from emotional properties like worldly sorrow and agony,"
and Kim Woo-chang says that it implies "a world where the subjective dissolves
and only a clear consciousness about the objective exists."
The description of the natural beauty focused on the
mountain and its top is the culmination of Paengnok Lake. It is illuminated
in Chi-yong's own writing "Night" which is rather a poetic theory that
the poetic world onto which human will is projected possesses the tragic
sublime. He says that "tragedy does not necessarily entail crying, sobbing
and emotional outburst; it only evokes true silence." Therefore, in many
poems of Paengnok Lake, the tragic sublime flows like the fragrance of
a flower or is transmuted into something like a silvery cloud.
Let us look at "Changsu Mountain," one of the representive
poems about mountains. It was once criticized as "a failure in content
and form" by Song Wook, and yet had a new light shed on its literary excellency
owing to Choi-Dong-ho's remarkable analysis.
It's said to be the din of downing trees; and it could
well be the felling of a huge pine, girth greater than arms can grasp.
The valley roars with what may well be the clang of resounding echoes.
No chipmunks chasing, no mountain birds singing, deep mountain silence
numbs the bone even more. Snow and the night are whiter than paper! And
the moon-is its white intent as it awaits fullness a stroll through the
valley in the dead of night? Now that the monk from the upper temple lost
six out of six, laughed, and went up, is the moon gathering the scent left
by the homespun old chap? On Chanysu Mountain, cold, heedless, without
sorrow or dreams, through a deep winter's night-
"Changsu Mountain 1"
There is no image that does not convey the tragic sublime,
let alone the "auditory image" which transforms the poetic space into "internal
resonance." "The din of downing trees"employed from the "Book of Songs"
is used for auditory effect. But it represents human existence undergoing
the tragic sublime that derives from the confrontation with the natural
force symbolized by the huge pine tree. In reverse, the echoing sound of
the felling of the pine that has been enduring all hardship and adversity
for a long time also suggests the tragic sublime.
The night "Whiter than paper" because of the snow and
the silence that "numbs the bone"materialize the tragic sublime that comes
from human perseverance struggling against darkness. This aesthetic realization
manifests itself in the remarkable expression that the moon brightens the
night with "its white intent." This is further supported by the agreement
between the poet's statement and the two images: the image of "the homespun
old chap after the monk from the upper temple lost six out of six, laughed,
and went up," and the image of the Changsu itself, which symbolizes the
human will that would bury the anxiety of the wintry night in the windless
The beauty sublimated by such tragic integrity becomes
more concrete in the image of the stony mountain of "Changsu Mountain 2."
The mountain top the poet looks at id stony, "without a quiver of grass."
It stands there for eternity enduring rain and wind; it is cold and silent
like ice, so much so that water flowing in it sounds as clean as a cricket.
The point is that the mountain top standing like a mass of rock is not
dead. In the terrifying solitude, enduring all suffering and anxiety, it
has a white fringe, a materialized form of tragic beauty fall in its serene
breath. It has the cliff on its hillside turning crimson with the shadow
These are not all that represent the form of tranquil
and transparent beauty deriving from human perseverane in the book. The
tragic sublime is materialized by the clean water of Paengnok Lake, which
symbolizes the consiousness of clear realization attained by human perseverance
as compared to climbing a mountain named life. Besides, all other natural
objects suggest the tragic sublime achieved by human resolution: the cornflowers
which get shorter and shorter as you reach the top of the mountain, pretty
berries looking like pellets, the white birches looking as if they are
stripped, the scent of wild orchids, horses and cattle living at almost
6,000 feet, the meek mother cows, the spring snow on a distant mountain
peak, an aged man in winter drinking Indong tea, and a swallowtail butterfly
looking like a metamorphosed mountaineer.
The tragic sublime of Chong Chi-yong, unlike that of
Western literature, which comes from the desperate struggle with an object,
derives from a paradoxical rapture that encompasses the struggle itself
through perseverance. Therefore, while the tragic beauty achieved in Western
literature is a sequence of the temporary coming from continual conflicts,
the realization of tragic beauty in Chi-yong's poetry is achieved through
being identified with nature, not losing one's self. As a mountain climber
who successfuly arrives at the top is rewarded with beautiful and fragrant
wild flowers, the realization is ensued by a paradisal world as peaceful
as that of an old man taking care of flowers.,
Often, falling stars
Get buried in the dell.
Where hail piles up
With a din in the twilight.
Live in exile,
And old temple-site式
When winds are still
And mountain shadows
form a loose weave,
Deer get up and cross the ridge.
How profoundly and persistently Chi-yong pursued the tragic
sublime is revealed in the poem "Formal Attire," dominated by the image
of white snow. Even after his tragic death, the gentleman who leapt from
Kumanmul Peak of Kumgang Mountains holds a majestic ceremony and lies prostrate
in the white snow to show reverence for the mountain.
......Settling, settling through the dead of winter, the
snow's white palm gave cover. "Since I'll not be creating," thought the
middle-aged man, "it won't be cold"; and in a proper corpse-like rite,
he lay prostrate the whole winter long. In folds like the formal attire,
the snow's whiteness vanished with the fullness of spring.
Enarnest Fenollosa, the scholar of Chinese literature
who had a great influence on Ezra Pound, said in his lecture on Chinese
poetry, "Language springs from creative metaphors in which man and nature
come to brotherhood." If Chi-yong had not had the devotion and passion
to sublimate human perseverance that resembles a mountain by an intense
consciousness, and to grasp the unique and sharp linguistic sense and beauty
of an object, the tragic sublime would not have been successfully embodied
in his poems about nature. It is also elucidated in Chi-yong's own remark
that a poem is "an incarnated union with language."
Chi-yong's sense for the poetic language is as sharp
as the scalpel. When reading his poems, one feels as if he looks into a
microscope since the poet's detailed description of a thing is so acute
and subtle. Chi-yong's language is very pungent yet tender, warm yet poignant.
However, his language is ingenuous like that of Wordsworth; it is natural,
plain, and pure. On the other hand, however, it emits the light of clear
intellect. This tells that Chi-yong's language has been heated in a furnace
of self-consciousness and self-discipline for a long time, no less than
that of other famous poets.
When Chi-yong writes poems about nature and joins in
its harmonious mystery, his poetic participation in nature transforms the
crudeness of natural objects into a mirror that materializes and reflects
the truth and morality of life.
Such poetic achievement reveals that his poetic expression
and language has been influenced by a few great poets of literary history
all over the world. As Oh Takboen and Moon Duksoo pointed out, Chi-yong
was inspired by Lee Bak, Doo Bo, Blake, Wordsworth, and the twenth century
Then what role does such influence play in Chi-yong's
poetic space? According to Hugh Kenner, "influence is no longer the relevant
metaphor"; it is "systems of identical interconnectedness." This system
does not exist in a fixed form, but becomes a resource that generates a
new power and a place where the power is rendered like "a grammar of generative
plots" in the imaginative human context. This kind of literary phenomenon
is found in many great literary works: "Hamlet", which was influenced by
Oresteia; Joyce's "Ulysses", whose mythical strength is founded on Homer's
"Odyssey"; T.S.Eliot's "The Waste Land", which is loaded with allusions
to the myth in Fraser's "The Golden Bough"; and Pound's poetry, which was
inspired by Japanese and Chinese poetry. Influence does not foster imitating
or copying the past, but promotes a progressive process of creating something
new from the past through the human imagination.
In addition to the classical works, the creative process
of the natural world which Chi-yong often employed as his poetic subject
provides him with an analogical system and many clues for the vision that
his mind concretizes in his poems. In fact, nobody would deny that the
rhythm of nature is a good symbol of bright future.
Chi-yong loved and celebrated with Baudelairian eyes
the change of "The white clouds flowering like white peonies" and "the
faint traces of time inscribed in the valuable blue stoneware," for he
perceived change in the unchangeable and dreamt metamorphosis through his
imagination. The metamorphosis of a thing in poetic space is only possibly
by elevation of consciousness through the poet's imaginative capacity and
flash-like intuition. The intensification of the keen consciousness is
closley related with the tragic sublime. It is because of the very tragic
sublime that Chi-yong always bleached the colour of an object, endowing
it with elegance.
Actually a poem of tragic beauty manifests at the moment
that it tries to pursue and ascend toward the essential and eternal world,
in other words, to more profoundly truthful world that exists beyond the
reality. In this perspective, the series of poems about "Sea-sickness"
and "Sea," the "Dream of Windblown Waves" sequence, "On the Deck," and
the "Glass Window" sequence, and a few poems written after converting to
Roman Catholicism show profound affinities to the poems concerned with
mountains and mountain tops in Paengnok Lake.
Some critics claim Chong Chi-yong's acute sensibility
is not able to accomodate human agony. But we should remember that his
acute linguistic sense is the outcome of the heightened consciousness that
is achieved from the severe struggle with human suffering and tenacity.
Poetry, unlike prose, functions as a window or a mirror
that reflects the secret dreams of an object and the vision of self-conscious
man as well as the phenomenal world of nature. In the majority of his poems,
Chi-yong wrote about the sublime and impenetrable beauty of nature on the
basis of oriental philosophy. The poem was, for him, a window and a mirror
reflecting the spiritual identity of himself and his fellow Koreans suffering
under the colonial oppression.
There are also some critics who insist that Chi-yong's
poetry is no more than a mere play of words that lacks visual effect. However,
let alone the analogical mask put on his poems, the impact created by the
intensity of the poet's unique linguistic sense and implanted in our mind
is far more disturbing than works of any other Korean poet. Furthermore,
his poetry engages us in a "sentimental education," enabling us to love
the good and moral.
The human tenacity, the most emphasized and predominant
element in his poetry, is needed for us to keep human diginity and to live
a truely human life.
"I will live beside white birch till they're skeletons.
Like birch, my whiteness when dead will not be ugly."
Translated by Jung So-young. She is teaching at Sogang