Hyesim and Nansŏrhŏn, translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-yong Hŏ

Translator’s Introduction

The two Korean poets who appear here—Nansŏrhŏn and Hyesim—wrote in classical Chinese, which for the periods in which they lived, was the accepted language used to write literature in Korea.  Hyesim and Nansŏrhŏn were both born into the noble class of Korea.  They had some shared interests expressed through their writing—compassion for the plight of others being most obvious—but their differences are stark. Hyesim was a man living in the 13th century who retired from government service to eventually become the second Patriarch of the Chogye Order—Korea’s largest Buddhist sect. Hyesim was also the first Korean monk to write dedicated poetry from a Buddhist point of view, and did so with a tone of Confucian refinement. Nansŏrhŏn, a 16th century noblewoman, was sequestered from the world when she had an arranged marriage at the age of 12, as was custom. Her poetry is more tonally passionate than Hyesim’s; it is refined and understated, but with more at stake emotionally. Nansŏrhŏn is considered by many Korean scholars to be Korea’s greatest female poet.

Hyesim observed the world with a Buddhist’s gentle appreciation.  In his poetry, the natural word is seen as a mirror of the self, which the meditation practitioner seeks to come into a positive understanding and relationship with. The deeper the understanding of the world around the practitioner—both natural and human constructed—the deeper the understanding of self. A poem like “Singing Moon” reminds the reader not to take the natural world for granted, or by extension, an opportunity to understand the self.  Though Hyesim’s poetic subtlety often has the appearance of literal direct language, he used figurative language in ways other than the example of “Singing Moon.” The phrase “boiling tea,” for example, is a metaphor for meditation. When a poem invites a reader to “have some tea,” the intention is to invite the reader to meditate. Gratitude for boiling tea in a poem like “Sending Tea with an Answer to a Question” feels more sensible and human in this broader context. Hyesim died in 1234.  Within the poems “October 1231” and “Water Clock” is not only a sense that “time is fleet is lightning,” but also thankfulness for a relationship of grace with the world.

Noblewomen in the time of Nansŏrhŏn were generally not given a classical education on a par with noblemen. It was socially unacceptable for noblewomen to paint, sing, learn music, or write poetry because learning such arts would have equated the noblewoman with a courtesan. Courtesans learned to sing, paint, and write poetry so that they could entertain noblemen. A noblewoman who did write poetry had to do so privately and share her writing with only a select few.

If a Korean noblewoman of this period wrote about progressive themes that challenged social norms, she had to express the ideas by using personas and troping traditional formal structures. Poetry written in this manner could then be defended by the noblewoman as simply practicing variations on poetic tradition. “A Peddler’s Song” is an example of Nansŏrhŏn’s sympathy with the lives of lower classes, sentiments she perhaps romanticized owing to the closeness she had with such classes as a child. “Peddler’s Song” and “West Hill’s Street of Pleasure” are both poems utilizing persona, although “West Hill” introduces a many nuanced poem with respect to themes found in Nansŏrhŏn: men who spend time with courtesans and abandon their wives; the life of the courtesan—sometimes happy, but sometimes filled with pining and emptiness (“Waves on the Shore” is a love song of longing) and a desire for freedom to enjoy life in ways that were not afforded noblewomen.  Nansŏrhŏn felt all these emotions profoundly. Within a poem like “Sending off a Palace Maid,” the compensation for these unrequited emotions is imagined as spiritual. Although a palace scribe was one of the few positions a woman in Nansŏrhŏn’s time could aspire to that would allow her to be educated and a respected member of the King’s court, the maid in the poem surrenders that position for a life in heaven as a Taoist Immortal spirit. The palace maid, now an Immortal in heaven, enjoys “happiness like maids who serve the King,” but her happiness is derived from freely traveling the stars. “On Shim, Maeng-gyun’s Painting, ‘Windy Rain on the Sea’” is an ekphrastic poem written with the T’ang style’s emotional reverence Nansŏrhŏn so highly valued.

  …………………………………                                                                           Ian Haight
Poems by Hyesim


Singing Moon

Clouds meander trails of air above—
light briefly shines

as there is no lake, my single moon
recedes from view.

Do not dismiss the moon tonight
just because you believe

it will set in the west, rise again tomorrow
in the east.
咏 月 (Singing Moon)

有 雲 光 乍 晴

無 水 影 還 空

莫 訝 西 沉 去

明 宵 又 出 東
Sending Tea with an Answer to a Question

I sit long in meditation, tire in the overlong night—
considering boiling tea, I feel endless gratitude.
Clouds of confusion disappear after one cup—
snow blankets my bones.  My ten thousand burdens end.
惠 茶 兼 呈 解 答 之 (Sending Tea with an Answer to a Question)

久 坐 成 勞 永 夜 中

煮 茶 偏 感 惠 無 窮

一 盃 卷 却 昏 雲 盡

徹 骨 淸 寒 萬 慮 空
October 1231, I Pass by Growth of Humanity Temple: Borrowing a Poem Written on a Wall

A stand of bamboo unifies a garden—
a salutary breeze drifts below a fence.
In the season of golden leaves, I regret the day’s brevity —
this night of silence — I want it to last.

Sun showers surround the Abbot’s quarters —
humid air entices the land.
Five days I’ve stayed, resting my staff and shoes —
such a delight when the world’s grace endures.
辛 卯 八 月 過 仁 弘 寺 次 壁 上 韻 (October 1231, I Pass by Growth of Humanity Temple)

綠 竹 滿 幽 苑

淸 風 入 矮 墻

高 秋 惜 日 短

良 夜 愛 更 長

花 雨 繞 方 丈

供 雲 開 衆 香

半 旬 留 杖 屨

慰 對 久 彌 光
Water Clock

A breeze of winter —
the months of this year draw to an end.
Every leaf in a forest eventually falls, yellowing a mountain —
only pine and bamboo retain an inborn breath of emerald.

How many years will a human live?
Time is fleet as lightning.
Details of self ought to be examined —
then the empty dream will not endure.
更 漏 子 (Water Clock)

秋 風 急 秋 霜 苦

歲 月 看 看 向 暮

群 木 落 四 山 黃 葉

松 筠 獨 蒼 蒼

人 間 世 能 幾 歲

忽 忽 光 陰 電 逝

須 猛 省 細 思 量

無 來 一 場 夢

Poems by Nansŏrhŏn

A Peddler’s Song


I depart in the morning from Euiju —
a headwind blows to the south.
On the boat’s bow, whiskey wets our tongues —
under the rising moon, we row all together.


Wind gusts on the water —
three long days in swift cascades.
A young wife sits at the prow —
she burns incense to improve her trade.


Spread the sails, go along with the wind —
stop before the rapids!
Harsh waves on the western river —
how many days to Hyung Ju?
買 客 詞  (A Peddler’s Song)

朝 發 宜 都 渚

北 風 吹 五 兩

船 頭 各 澆 酒

月 下 齊 盪 槳

疾 風 吹 水 急

三 日 住 層 灘

少 婦 船 頭 坐

焚 香 學 筭 錢

掛 席 隨 風 去

逢 灘 則 滯 留

西 江 波 浪 惡

幾 日 到 荊 州
West Hill’s Street of Pleasure


Wind driven peonies bloom fully
in front of Mistress So So’s gate—

the scent of willows
in harmony with wine.

People toast to the time
with golden glasses, stroll drunkenly,

stay through late night—
her carriage of scarlet orchids

swiftly rendezvous under moonlight.


“Near Juhn Dang River is my house—
in May, the lotus bloom first.

My long black hair, loose—
I nod off, then wake—

in ease, I lean on rails,
sing Waves on the Shore.
西 陵 行  (West Hill’s Street of Pleasure)

蘇 小 門 前 花 正 開

柳 香 和 酒 撲 金 杯

夜 闌 留 得 遊 人 醉

油 壁 車 輕 月 裏 回

錢 塘 江 上 是 儂 家

五 月 初 開 菡 萏 花

半 鶉 烏 雲 睡 新 覺

倚 欄 閑 唱 浪 淘 沙
Sending Off a Palace Maid to a Taoist Temple

Goodbye to the palace.  She leaves her courtly room of scholars.
No longer a scribe, her hairpiece changed for an Immortal’s luminous crown.

Time passes: she knows the boundless ocean, and naturally mounts a phoenix—
there are no dreams in the Jade Fortress of Immortals.

Her phoenix easily takes flight:
gliding below clouds swollen with warmth

she shakes the hoary cold of snow from her lustrous gown.
Above clouds, the night’s snowy light of moon—

her pendant charms resound in air.
Endlessly, she roams Heaven’s sea of stars

wearing scarlet robes, happy,
like maids who serve the King.
送 宮 人 入 道  (Sending Off a Palace Maid to a Taoist Temple)

拜 辭 淸 禁 出 金 鑾

換 却 鴉 鬟 着 玉 冠

滄 海 有 綠 應 駕 鳳

碧 城 無 夢 更 驂 鸞

瑤 裙 振 雪 春 雲 暖

瓊 珮 鳴 空 夜 月 寒

幾 度 步 虛 銀 漢 上

御 衣 猶 似 奉 宸 懽
On Shim Maeng-gyun’s Painting, “Windy Rain on the Sea”

A rainbow flares mid-sky, like a 100 chuk ladder—
barefoot mountain spirit walks the double rainbow.
Strong winds whip cliffs; the surge of swelling waves—
the sky, sombered by low clouds, bursts into rain.
In its mouth, a dragon holds a flaming marble
dives to an underwater palace—
a phoenix curls upwards on splendid wings,
disappears over the horizon.
A ghost wails, dissolving far into a cavernous palace—
the color brush overflows, deluged with passion.
題 沈 孟 鈞 中 溟 風 雨 圖  (On Shim Maeng-gyun’s Painting, “Windy Rain on the Sea”)

虹 掣 中 宵 有 天 梯

仙 人 素 足 踏 雙 霓

獰 風 吹 壁 海 濤 立

驟 雨 暗 空 雲 色 低

龍 抱 火 珠 潛 水 宅

鵬 翻 逸 翮 隱 坤 霓

沈 沈 深 殿 鬼 神 泣

彩 筆 淋 漓 元 氣 迷

© Ian Haight and T’ae-yong Hŏ

Hyesim (1178-1234) was the first Zen (Sŏn) Master in Korea dedicated to poetry. The tradition of Sŏn Buddhist poetry is frequently considered by Korean literary critics to begin with his writings. Hyesim’s secular name was Sik Choe. He was born in Hwasun, Cholla Province, and he studied Confucianism and Buddhism. He became a scholar-literatus and became a high-level government official as his mother wished. After his mother passed away, he entered a Buddhist temple to start his life as a monk. He received the title of Sŏn Master from Koryo King Kojong in 1213. Three years later, he received the title Grand Sŏn Master from the king. He was recognized as the highest monk-the Chingak Kuksa of the so-called Buddhist Dynasty. The four English translations appear in Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim, just published by White Pine Press (June 4, 2013).

Nansŏrhŏn Hŏ, a 16th century noblewoman, was sequestered from the world when she had an arranged marriage at the age of 12, as was custom in 16th century Korea. She is considered by many Korean scholars to be Korea’s greatest female poet. The featured English translations are excerpts from a manuscript, which has received grant support for book publication.

Ian Haight has been awarded translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literary Translation Institute, and the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation.  He is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ, Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim, and editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, all from White Pine Press.  Poems, essays, and translations appear in Barrow Street, Writer’s Chronicle, and Prairie Schooner.  For more information please visit http://www.ianhaight.com.

T’ae-yong Hŏ has been awarded several translation grants from the Daesan Foundation and Korea Literary Translation Institute. With Ian Haight, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ, and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim.


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