Jun 2, 2011


Hyangga was the first uniquely Korean form of poetry. The word hyangga means "native songs," from Korea as opposed to Chinese songs. Hyangga poetry was written in Korean using a system called idu, literally "clerk's writings. Idu was a system whereby Koreans would use Chinese characters to express Korean.

The key to the system was to use some Chinese characters for their intended purpose, their meaning, and others for their pronunciation, ignoring their pictographic meaning. On the surface, it appears to be a complicated, even incomprehensible system, but after using the system one become comfortable with certain characters consistently standing for Korean words, and others representing Chinese.

Fourteen poems in the Hyangga style from the Shilla period have been preserved in the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). This poetic form was passed down to the Koryo Dynasty, and 11 poems from that period are preserved in the Kyunyojon (Tales of Kyunyo).

Many of the poems are elegies to monks, to warriors, and to family members. The Silla period, especially before unification (668) was a time of warfare and the hyangga capture the sorrow of mourning for the dead while Buddhism provided answers about where the dead go and the afterlife.

Hyangga can be seen as 4-line, 8-line, and 10-line poems. It is thought that the 4-line poems with their ballad-like attributes may indicate that the poets came from a broad range of backgrounds. The 10-line poems, with the most developed poetic structure, are divided into three sections of 4-4-2. Most of the 10-line poems were written by priests or by the Hwarang ("flower warriors"). These warriors were the backbone of the Shilla aristocracy. The 10-line poems reflect the emotions of the aristocrats and their religious consciousness.

The hyangga can consist of 4, 8, or 10 lines.
Syllable count in each line: 4 – 15
When using 10 lines, it is divided into three verses – 2 verses of 4 lines and a couplet.

I have to confess that when it came time to create an example, my mind went blank. I did, however, find several interesting examples:

Seodong-yo" (The Ballad of Seodong), which is the oldest known hyangga, is a simple, four-line song whose lyrics tell the love scandal of Princess Seonhwa of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935). The song was composed by Seodong, a witty, sweet potato-seller in the marketplace in order to trick the king into disowning the princess. The princess later married Seodong, who later became King Mu of the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-A.D. 660). The song was enjoyed for the next 370 years.

Seodong Yo

Again the moon returns,
casting a light on the window.
Shortly, shortly, Princess Seonhwa
is to become Seodong's bride.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A typical hyangga is the Ode for Life Eternal. The poem is a song that calls upon the moon to convey the supplicant's prayer to the Western paradise, the home of Amita (or Amitabha—the Buddha of the Western paradise). It was written by a monk named Gwangdeok or possibly his wife. It was translated by Mark Peterson in 2006

Ode for Life Eternal

Oh moon!
As you go to the west this night,
I pray thee, go before the eternal Buddha
And tell him that there is one here
Who adores him of the deep oaths
And chants daily with hands together saying
Oh grant me eternal life!
Oh grant me eternal life!
But alas, can any of the 48 vows be kept
While still trapped in this mortal frame?

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Requiem for the Dead Sister

On the hard road of life and death
That is near our land,
You went, afraid,
Without words.

We know not where we go
Leaves blown, scattered,
Though fallen from the same tree,
By the first winds of autumn.

Ah, I will polish the path
Until I meet you in the Pure Land.

Written by Master Wôlmyông (c. 742-765), translated by Peter H. Lee.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ode to Knight Kip'a

The moon that pushes her way
Through the thickets of clouds,
Is she not pursuing
The white clouds?

Knight Kip'a once stood by the water
Reflecting his face in the Iro.
Henceforth I shall seek and gather
The depth of his mind among pebbles.

Knight, you are the towering pine
That scorns frost, ignores snow.

Written by Master Ch'undam (c. 742-765), translated by Peter H. Lee.

1 comment:

Tara Tyler said...

that was some beautiful poetry =)