In Search of the Essence of Sijo
Suppose a Korean writer is participating in an international literary conference. And suppose there is a foreign writter who happens to ask him or her about the traditional literary genre of Korea. Most likely, sijo will come into his or her mind, for it is the extant poetic form that is still enjoyed in Korea ever since it emerged about 700 years ago. On mentioning sijo, the Korean writer will probably be asked what kind of literary genre sijo is. More often than not, he or she may not find a satisfactory answer, other than that it is a short three-line poetic form. Or he or she may quote one or two sijo works and add this or that interpretation.
If you are the Korean writer mentioned above, which work of sijo would you quote? Probably, most Koreans would be intimate with Jeong Mongju’s work beginning, “Though I were to die and die again,” or Hwang Jini’s work, “Blue stream amid the green hills”; and not a few Koreans would be familiar with Yi Saek’s, “In the valley of melted snow” or Yi Jeongbo’s “A pear blossom fallen by the raging wind” All of these works are poignant and meaningful in their own way; however, what are the common characteristics applicable to all these and, hopefully, other sijo works? An attempt to infer the common characteristics of sijo on the basis of a few works might be comparable to an attempt to see the forest in just a few trees. And yet, if you don’t figure out the overall view, how can you find your way through the forest?
One of the obvious facts is that sijo is a short threeline poetic form, as mentioned above. To be more specific, sijo is composed of approximately forty-five syllables (morae) arranged into three lines. If there is any comparable short poetic form in the world, it would be the Japanese haiku consisting of seventeen syllables in three lines. And yet, sijo is quite a different poetic form from haiku.
What makes sijo unique is its sense structure. Unlike haiku, whose sense structure is characterized by its attempts at the superimposition of one image or idea upon another, sijo mobilizes a different mode of presenting poetic ideas or images: a fourfold sense structure of introduction, development, turn, and conclusion. A theme is introduced in the first line; it is developed in the second; a twist or anti-theme is proposed in the first half of the third; and a certain conclusion is provided in the second half of the third. In this way, sijo evokes the dramatic unfolding of a poetic theme.
One might argue that such a description would be too sweeping to be of any practical value to the readers of the actual works of sijo. Sure enough, the above-mentioned works vary in theme and mood. First of all, Jeong’s1 sijo dramatizes the resolution of a man confronted with a political dilemma: Should one remain loyal to one’s lord, or side with the newly emerged political power about to overthrow him? According to a popular legend, shortly after Jeong recited this sijo in front of a key political opponent, he was killed by assassins on his way home.
Though I were to die and die again, still die a hundred times,
And so my bones all turn to dust, my soul remains or not,
My single-minded heart toward my love shall never perish.*
Hwang Jini’s2 work is a sort of love poem, and its major theme would be summarized as carpe diem. “Blue stream” is a pun on the name of a noble, Byeokgyesu, who took pride in his being impervious to any female charm, and “Bright Moon” was a pseudonym of Hwang, who was a gisaeng (a professional entertainer) at the time. The legend says that, while Byeokgyesu passed by, Hwang recited this provocatively suggestive sijo. Attracted to her beauty and poetic ingenuity, Byeokgyesu was said to have fallen in love with her. One might also read in this sijo a satirical tone of a commoner mocking the ostentatiousness of the nobility.
Blue Stream amid the green hills, better not boast of your speed.
Once you have reached the ocean there’s slim chance you will return.
When Bright Moon shines over the hills, why not stay awhile and enjoy it...