The literature of any country is very important in order to make a better understanding of its society and people. So here we are today with one of the famous poems of Korean literature – 서시 ( Foreword ).
Foreword or Prelude by Yun Dong Ju is one of the most popular poems in modern Korean literature. This poem not only talks about the life and thoughts of the poets himself but also reflects the struggles of Korean people under the Japanese colonial era.
About the poet
Yun Dong Ju (윤동주) was a Korean poet who was born on 30 December 1917 in Myeongdongchon in North Gando, Manchuria, present-day Jilin province in China, and died on 16 February 1945 in Fukuoka, Japan. During childhood, he was named Haehwan (해환) which means ‘sunlight’.
He went to Japan to receive an education. At that time, Japan had developed a modernised system of education which lured many students from the other southeast Asian countries including China. After going to Japan, Yun Dong Ju entered Kyoto Doshisha University in 1992. However, in 1993, he was arrested by the Japanese police for the alleged anti-Japanese movements. During this time he wrote many poems which he decided to compile in his book entitled “ The Sky, the Wind, the Stars and the Poem (하늘과 바람과 별과 시)”.
Unfortunately, on 16 February, 1945, while imprisoned in Fukuoka Jail( Japan) , Yun Dong Ju died at the young age of 27. His book “The Sky, the Wind, the Stars and the Poem” was published posthumously. With the appearance of this volume Yun came into the spotlight as a Resistance poet of the late occupation period.
The fact that he died only 6 months before the liberation of his country was truly regrettable. On August 15, 1945, Korea’s independence was declared and the Korean Independence Day came to be known as Gwangbokjeol (광복절) or “the Day the Light Returned” to honour Yun Dong Ju.
서시 ( Foreword )
– 윤동주 (Yun Dong-Ju)
죽는 날까지 하늘을 우러러
한 점 부끄럼이 없기를
잎새에 이는 바람에도
별을 노래하는 마음으로
모든 죽어가는 것을 사랑해야지
그리고 나에게 주어진 길을 걸어가야겠다
오늘 밤에도 별이 바람에 스치운다
Wishing not to have
so much as a speck of shame
toward heaven until the day I die,
I suffered, even when the wind stirred the leaves
With my heart singing to the stars,
I shall love all things that are dying.
And I must walk the road
that has been given to me.
Tonight, again, the stars are
brushed by the wind.
—Translated by Kyung Yun K. Richards & Steffen F. Richards
This is one of the difficult poems to analyze and translate. Korean poets tend to use a lot of references to nature. In this poem also , some natural elements are used as symbols which are:
• Sky(하늘) which symbolizes heaven or the almighty.
• Wind(바람) which symbolizes the difficulties, anxiety and agony of the people.
• Leaves(잎새) which represents the ordinary people .
• Lastly, Star(별) symbolically represents hope .
In the first stanza , the poet is self reflecting and writes that he wants to live a life so pure , that he can face the sky (the almighty), without feeling ashamed or guilty. He further writes that his heart aches even when a ‘leaf’ is stirred by the ‘wind’. It is being emphasized here that even a little event could make him feel guilty. As the poem was written during Japanese colonial era, it can be concluded that poet wants to convey that he feels sorry and guilty for the ordinary people ( ‘leaves’ ) who were getting tormented by the oppressive regime of the Japanese authorities.
In the second stanza, the poet puts forward his ‘hope’, and dreams that things would get better eventually. Further, the poet mentions of his love for all the things that are ‘ dying’ – his people, society and the country; under the colonial rule. Here the poet also states that he would walk on his destined path, i.e., he would resist the liberation of his country in his own way. As we know, the poet was not a soldier who could fight battles to resist the Japanese forces. Hence, the poet came up with his own ‘path’ to resist colonial forces through the means of his writings.
The last line tells that despite harbouring all the hopes, the ‘star’ ( his hope) is getting swept away by the ‘wind’ which again emphasizes the arduous conditions of his country due to the Japanese occupation. However, it is to be noted here that no matter how much the ‘wind’ will try, it will never be able to brush off the ‘ stars’ and stop it from shining.
Check out this video for the explanation of the poem:
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