[Inkstone] In Praise of the Essay and Yi Gyubo’s Poetics

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byGrace Koh

The essay or non-fictional prose may not appeal to as many readers of literature as fiction or poetry. A common perception might be that essays are not as entertaining as fictional stories or as aesthetically pleasing as poems, but rather, are boring or didactic due to their subjective narrative. The subjective voice may irritate some readers while for others it may fuel their curiosity about the author’s intention and life. In my case, the latter applies as I was always drawn to essays as far as I can remember. As a student, the essays of Montaigne, Rousseau, Thoreau and Woolf captivated my interest with their engaging observations and commentaries on a diverse range of topics that were relevant to particular moments in each of their times and places in history. As much as I enjoy fiction for stories that transport me to different places of an imagined yet possible or probable reality, when I read an essay I find myself in the presence of the author, engaging with them as they speak to me in eloquent prose to share their ideas and perspectives. The essay captures a private moment of personal thoughts in time, in history, when a writer becomes inspired to jot them down and reflect upon them. As narratives stemming from lived experience, they are historically relevant – perhaps even more compelling than history books – and readers may find the accounts relatable to their own lives and interests, even if they are from different eras and cultures.

As a literary genre, prose writings or essays collectively known as supil in Korean have a long-standing tradition in East Asian literary culture that continues today. Traditionally, there were different generic terms for essays depending on their topic, purpose, style or emphasis. Among Korean authors of traditional essays, Yi Gyubo (1168–1241) from the Goryeo period (918–1392) captivated my interest from the first time I encountered his works during my graduate studies in Korean literature. Though he was an author writing in classical Chinese (hanmun) around eight hundred years ago, his works embody traits which I consider ‘modern’ and relevant to us in our times. Renowned for his prolific literary execution, original approach and creativity associated with ‘new meaning’, his works attest to a self-aware writer who conveyed his reality and personal opinions with perceptive observations and incisive analysis of Korean history and culture. According to the Goryeosa (History of Goryeo, 1451), so extraordinary were his literary skills and talent that they won him a government post even relatively late in life.

As one of Korea’s most prolific authors, Yi Gyubo produced an extensive collection of writings which were compiled by his son, Yi Ham, as the Dongguk Yisangguk jip (DGYSGJ, Collected works of Minister Yi of Korea, 1241 and 1251) for posterity. Consisting of two parts and fifty-three fascicles of poetry and prose of approximately forty different genres, most works from this collection are also found in the Dongmunseon (Anthology of Korean literature, 1478 and 1518), a court-decreed anthology of early Korean literature compiled during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), confirming Yi’s place in the Korean literary canon. He continued to be referenced and lauded throughout the Joseon period and in the modern era. As an author from the Goryeo period, he wrote all his works in classical Chinese but they are available to twenty-first century readers in modern Korean translation, with a limited selection of works in English and other foreign languages in Korean literature anthologies and journals. Among Yi’s considerable literary corpus, “Dongmyeong wang pyeon” (Lay of King Dongmyeong) is perhaps one of his most well-known for its historiographical significance and lyrical eloquence, along with a selection of his poems, poetry criticism (sihwa), and essays. In this essay, I wish to outline some of his ideas about poetry and writing presented in his prose pieces or essays from the DGYSGJ.

Yi Gyubo reflected on the essential or metaphysical nature of poetry in his notable essay “Nonsijung miji yageon” (Discussion on essential and obscure matters of poetry, DGYSGJ I: 22). Following the traditional view that creative talent is an inherent quality based on the poet’s gi (breath or vital energy), Yi emphasised the close relationship between meaning or ideas (eui) and the poet’s gi. He highlights eui as the essence of poetry, gi as the essence of eui which ‘derives from heaven’. Thus, those with weak gi may produce elegant verses but as there are ‘no layers, depth or substance of eui within, they may impress and appeal at first but soon lose their lustre and bear no taste when discerned thereafter’. With his knowledge of Literary Sinitic culture and poetics and his masterful talent with words, he goes on to identify ‘nine indecorous modes or methods’ (gubureuiche) for composing poetry as follows:


Citing too many names of the old masters in a poem results in a ‘cartload of ghosts’. Stealing even good ideas of the old masters is wrong, but stealing bad ones is ‘appropriation by fumbled theft’. Placing emphatic rhymes without basis is ‘drawing crossbows with no victory’. Excessive rhyming beyond one’s talent is ‘boozing without moderation’. Enjoying the use of obscure characters to captivate people is ‘ditchdigging to lure in the blind’. Persisting to use unyielding words is ‘coercing to follow’. Frequent use of colloquialisms is akin to a ‘gabfest of yokels’. Partiality to discern and criticise is to ‘disregard the sages’. Failing to pare unrefined phrases results in a ‘field full of weeds’. If one is able to avoid these indecorous modes, then one can speak of poetry.1


Here Yi cautions against excessive references to old masters, appropriation or plagiarism, gratuitous use of emphatic rhymes, excessive rhyming, obscure characters, unyielding words, colloquialisms, overt criticism, and failing to polish and refine verses effectively. He adds that the same rules apply to literary prose. As conventional or obvious as these points may seem, the way in which he presents them is expressively demonstrative, subjective and original, reflecting Yi’s literary wit and craftmanship.

Yi Gyubo was a firm believer that writing should be inspired by and express the author’s personal experience. An example of this is found in an essay entitled “Wang mungong guksi eui” (Deliberations on Wang Anshi’s poem on chrysanthemums, DGYSGJ II: 11), in which Yi states ‘poetry is that which presents things seen’, so the source of poetry must stem from experience based on what the poet has witnessed first-hand, rather than from other poetry based on what others have written about. When explaining or defending one’s work, the poet should then reference their experience, not works written by other poets (for which he criticises Wang Anshi in the account he discusses).

Referencing the classics were in fact part of the literary conventions of Yi Gyubo’s time, which encouraged reverence and emulation of the great poets. However, Yi was known for not always adhering to convention and frequently criticised emulation or imitation as thievery. He believed that no matter how carefully people revised their works with stylistic embellishments, those based on another were essentially “copy” versions that would lack variety and character. In a reply to his friend Jeon Iji (“Dap Jeon Iji nonmunseo”, DGYSGJ I: 26) he lamented, ‘as people’s love for dazzlement is greater than ever today, they desire and appreciate even stolen goods so long as they please the eyes. Who will know of the original work from which an imitation was derived?’

Yi often expressed his reluctance to follow conventions that merely repeated or imitated old language and styles, which future generations might render redundant and meaningless; but he was also aware that changing them would be subject to derision by people in his time. Jeon Iji apparently praised Yi Gyubo for not blindly adhering to common conventions, and for creating words – by Yi’s own admission, ‘unusual and strange words’ – that created new meanings (sineui), ‘which have startled the eyes and ears of all people’. While Yi offered a humble explanation of not being well versed in the classics which caused him to make up words when asked to recite poetry, he was in fact extremely erudite, but stressed provenance and originality. He does not hide his sense of pride when he declares, ‘Ancient poets created meanings, not words; I create meanings with words without embarrassment’.

His ideas on new words (sineo) to convey and express new meaning (sineui) have been discussed extensively by Korean scholars, whereby Yi Gyubo has been commonly associated with the so-called sineuiron or ‘new meaning theory’ in Korean literary scholarship. He has been celebrated by successive generations of writers and scholars for practising what he preached through an impressive body of writings that included spontaneous observations, critical discussions, poetic expressions, as well as official responses on a diverse range of topics ranging from the socio-historical and political to personal and private matters.


Grace Koh
SOAS, University of London