Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poems of moon and breeze

Yesterday we went to look at the Korean moon jar on show at the British Museum. It was bought in 1935 in an antique shop in Seoul by Bernard Leach and subsequently lent to Lucie Rie. As the BM site says, ‘When Leach saw the jar in Rie's studio, he decided that it should remain there.’ There is an article about the exhibition at the London Korean Links site.
One of the wall captions mentions the particular significance of the moon in Korean culture. I put “Korean Moon Poem” into google and the first thing that came up was “we are very pleased to advise that... Brigitte Bardot has taken up the cause of Korea's moon bears...” Turning instead to my copy of Peter M. Lee’s Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, I had a look through to see how the moon had been treated in the nature poetry of Korea. It doesn’t seem to me to be a dominant theme, but it is a strong element in many of the poems. For example, there is Songs of Five Friends by Yun Sondo (whose verses making up The Angler’s Calendar (1651) I have mentioned here before); the five friends are water, stone, pine, bamboo and the moon. For Yun the moon’s appeal lies in the way it sees everything, but says nothing.

The moon also features in some of the poems of scholarly retreat written by Neo-Confucian philosophers in the previous century. The moon’s brightness and the wind’s freshness provide the setting for peaceful thought, far from the cares of the city. Kwon Homun mentions the clarity provided by ‘the windy air and bright round moon’, while Song Hon says ‘a clear breeze has no price, the bright moon no lover.’ Yi I (1536-84) writes ‘my study by the water, how cool and clean! Here I will discuss learning and make poems of moon and breeze.’ These lines are in the fifth of his Nine Songs of Mount Ku, which describe a series of inspirational landscapes: Crown Rock, Flower Rock, Emerald Screen, Pine Cliff, Hidden Screeens, Fisher’s Gorge, Maple Rock, Zither Shoal and Mount Mun.

Moon Jar in the National Museum of Korea

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