Kim Sowol, a Beloved Poet of Korea

Take a look into the life of a Korean poet, Kim Sowol, and his beautiful poems

By Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol in the Time of Attending Osan Middle SchoolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Korea’s prominent poet, Kim Sowol

Kim Sowol (1902-1934), whose real name was Kim Jeong-Sik, is one of the most prominent and beloved poets in Korea. He is commonly called by his pen name "Sowol," which he used for his published works. Despite his rather short-lived life of 33 years, he is considered a national poet who expressed the sentiments of Koreans through a most Korean-style voice, and conveyed the sorrow of Koreans and the agony of intellectuals during a dark period in Korean history under Japanese rule. With about 150 poems he left, Sowol and his poems have constantly been beloved by Koreans across generations.

Gye Hee-youngAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol was born in an affluent family running a mining business but was raised by his grandfather and lived with his uncle Kim Eung-yeol and his uncle’s wife, Gye Hee-young. His father was assaulted by Japanese people and became mentally ill when Sowol was three years old. The young child became interested in literature thanks to his aunt Gye Hee-young who repeatedly told him Korean traditional stories.

Kim Sowol in the Time of Attending Osan Middle SchoolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

After graduating from Namsan Primary School, in 1915, at the age of fourteen, Kim Sowol entered Osan Middle School which was established by the independent activist Lee Seung-hoon, with the goal of arousing national consciousness. It was here where he met Jo Man-sik and Kim Eok, who played critical roles in his life.

The picture is the only photograph of Kim Sowol left today and it is assumed to have been taken when he was in Osan Middle School, at around 17 years of age.

Jo Man-sikAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

At Osan Middle School, Kim Sowol met Jo Man-sik (1883-1950), the then President of the school, an independent activist and a campaigner who organized the Korean Production Movement, an economic independence movement for Koreans. Jo had a great influence on him in developing and expanding the perspective of his works to the people and country. Kim also composed a poem titled J.M.S, an abbreviation for Jo Man-sik, in which his thoughts about Jo Man-sik are plainly illustrated:

J.M.S lived in Osan,
Thinking of you this spring morning a decade later.

You cared for nothing else, but showed only your passion for the nation.

“J.M.S (Extract)”, Kim Sowol

Kim EokAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Also, Kim Sowol met his teacher Kim Eok (1896-unknown), whose pen name was Kim Ahn-seo, while he attended Osan Middle School. Recognizing Kim Sowol’s talent while teaching at Osan Middle School, Kim Eok provided generous support to him to become a poet by encouraging him and introducing him to literary circles. Thanks to Kim Eok’s support, Kim Sowol published his poems in the literary magazine Changjo Issue 5 at the age of eighteen, making his literary debut.

The Panoramic View of Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum by Appenzeller Noble Memorial MuseumAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol at Pai Chai Hakdang: Short time in Seoul but profound work

Kim Sowol was most active as a poet from 1922 to 1923 while he attended Pai Chai Hakdang, the first modernized education institute in Korea, which he entered after a temporary suspension of his studies due to the closure of Osan Middle School in the wake of the Sam-il Movement in 1919. He was transferred to the 5th grade, to Pai Chai Hakdang in 1922, and graduated in March 1923. Then, Pai Chai Hakdang was an educational institution that encouraged speech, discussion, etc. as extracurricular activities in addition to the regular curriculum, based on the education agreement executed with the Joseon government and with the purpose to nurture modern talents. Pai Chai Hakdang students who received such an education organized the Cooperation and Success Association (Hyeopseonghoe) which was later developed into the Independence Association, serving as a center of the national movement and the foundation for a public enlightenment campaign.

Pai Chai Hakdang, Seoul. H.G.Appenjeller, Founder and Principal (1885/1900)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol was most active as a poet in 1922, in which he was transferred to Pai Chai Hakdang. He published his poems “Golden Grass” and “O Mother, O Sister” in the January 1922 issue of the literary magazine Gaebyeok. His most representative and widely known poem “Azaleas” was also published in the July 1922 issue thereof, while he attended Pai Chai Hakdang. He released about 50 poems in 1922 only, and it seems that he was also engaged with Na Do-Hyang (a graduate of Pai Chai Hakdang of 1918), a novelist, at around this time.

Kim Sowol at Pai Chai HakdangAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol led an active student life at Pai Chai Hakdang, particularly as a member of the literature club of the Pai Chai Student Youth Association. Established in 1903, the Pai Chai Student Youth Association was comprised of a total of six clubs including religious, social, literature, athletic, music and discussion clubs, and among which the literature club was in charge of editing the school magazine.

Pai Chai School Magazine Issue 2 (1923) by Henry Dodge AppenzellerAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

As a member of the literature club, Kim Sowol released an array of poems and writings in the school magazine Pai Chai. This school magazine of Pai Chai Higher Common School published by the Pai Chai Student Youth Association had students’ literature works, editorials, school news and a status report, showing the perception of reality and a sense of social calling of the students at that time. Seven poems of Kim were published in Pai Chai Issue 2, including "Snow Falls", "A Little Cuckoo" and "Silken Mist". At this time, Kim composed many poems about the nature while translating works of western literature.

Snow Falls, A Little Cuckoo (1923) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

'Snow Falls', 'A Little Cuckoo'
- Pai Chai Issue 2

Snow Falls

Snow falls covering the earth with white blanket.
Snow falls whenever I wait for him.
Snow falls when he is not coming

- Pai Chai Issue 2

A Little Cuckoo

Cuckoo!
Cuckoo!
Little brothers, it is I
Calling "Cuckoo!"

A sister who lived by the Jindoo River
Comes to the village where once she was,
And calls cuckoo.

Years and years ago
There was a sister
Living by the River,
who took her own life for a stepmother's cruelty.

Pity on her
The poor sister.
She become a little cuckoo
When the jealousy of her stepmother killed her.

Unable to forget even after death
The little brothers she left,
She cries on at night
Moving among the mountains around the village.

- Pai Chai Issue 2

Silken Mist (1923) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Silken Mist

The unforgetable memory comes back again
When the silken mist spreads over the snow.
It was then we met and then we wept.
It was then that the torment was more than we could bear.

When the silken mist spreads over the snow,
Life is not to live alone.
It was then a lass sought death for herself
When the snow began to melt.

When the silken mist spreads over the snow,
The larks begin to soar in the sky.
It is then the spirit is gay
With the fragrance of the field, the sea, and the sky.

The unforgetable memory comes back
When the silken mist spreads over the snow.
It was then we first made love.
It was then we parted with hearts in two.

- Pai Chai Issue 2

Kim Sowol's Editor's Comments (1923) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

In addition to a series of poems, there are editor’s comments written by Kim Sowol in Pai Chai Issue 2.

“Editing undone, but going home due to the hateful entrance exam; my apologies to my editor friends. (Sowol)"

It appears that Kim Sowol had to return to his old home early for his Japanese university entrance examination. He entered the Tokyo College of Commerce in the spring in 1923 but he did not remain there long due to the Great Kanto Earthquake that hit Japan in September 1923.

Kim Sowol's Register of Pai Chai Higher Common School (1) (1923)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol’s school life is also well-illustrated in the register of Pai Chai Hakdang (1923).

Name: Kim Jeong-Sik; Domicile of Origin: Gwaksan-myeon, Jeongju-gun, Pyeongan-do

Entered by passing the special admission examination on April 1, 1922 (Taishō 11); Graduated on March 1, 1923 (Taishō 12)

Kim Sowol's Register of Pai Chai Higher Common School (2) (1923)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Academic score in grade 5
Korean Reading Score: 100, Chinese Reading Score: 98.

Ranked 4th in the entire class of 44 students; No. of instructional days: 220 days; No. of attendance: 212 days; No. of absences (Excused absence: Absence due to a special reason or accident): 8 days

The 7th Graduates of Pai Chai HakdangAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol graduated from Pai Chai College with honors, ranking 4th among 44 graduates in March 1923.

The First Edition of Poetry Azaleas (1925)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Azaleas, Kim Sowol’s sole collection of poetry, and his major works

His only collection of poetry “Azaleas” (Registered Cultural Heritage No. 470-2; First edition published on December 26, 1925) was published in 1925, when he was 24 years old. Including his major poems, Azaleas contains 126 poems, which Koreans can empathize with on a deep level as the sentiment of Koreans are metaphorically described with nature and in a very Korean style.

Azaleas (1922) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

"Azaleas" is considered a poem of the spirit of self-giving and selfless endurance of a beautiful but desperate love based on the oriental notion of being resigned to fate.

Azaleas

If you would go,
Tiring of me,
Nothing will I say.

I shall pick azaleas
At the Yaksan, Yungbyun,
And deck the path you tread.

Tread gently
On my azaleas
Where the path is decked.

If you would go,
Tiring of me,
No cry shall you hear of mine.

- Gaebyeok Issue 25 (July, 1922)

Invocation (1925) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

The poem ''Invocation,” written about the title itself in an impassioned voice, follows the steps of mourning rituals in funeral procedures, capturing the feelings of anguish and despair for losing one’s beloved.

Invocation

A name shattered in pieces:
A name vanished in air:
Aname with no reponse
Yet will I be calling it, till I die

My dear
Oh, My dear
You are gone at length.
And I did not tell you how much I'd loved you.

The bright sun sets over the mountain.
Even the deer cry out hear-broken.
I call to you
Standing on a lone crest of a mountain.

I am calling you in teats.
I am calling you in teats.
But, oh, too hollow is the space between
the heaven and the earth
For my voice to reach you.

I'll be calling you till my death
Even if I be turned into a stone
My love.
My dear love.

- “Azaleas” (December, 1925)

O Mother, O Sister (1922) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

In the poem “O Mother, O Sister,” Kim Sowol’s longing for a life of harmony with his mother and sister in peaceful nature is plainly expressed in the rhythm and tune of a children’s verse.

O Mother, O Sister

Oh, mother and sister,
Come live with me by the river.
In garden, glows of golden sands in glitter
Hums of reeds outside rear-gate.
Oh, mother and sister,
Come live with me by the river.

- Gaebyeok Issue 19 (January, 1922)

Only Think, If We Had Our Land, Our Own to Plow (1925) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

The poem “Only Think, If We Had Our Land, Our Own to Plow” portrays Kim Sowol’s perception of reality unlike his other lyrical poems, his will to be free from the then circumstances of Koreans who lost their national sovereignty.

Only Think, If We Had Our Land, Our Own to Plow

I dreamed
that shoulder to shoulder with my companions
I was returning to the village after a full day of work,
in the evening light, happy, in such a dream.

But I have lost my home.
Only think, if we had our land, our own to plow!
Instead we wander at evening, and in the morning
earn newer sighs, new lamentations.

South or north, or east,
my body floats away, just look at it,
the shining of hope, the faraway distances the stars light.
Waves rise, against the bosom, legs, and arms.

And yet this overwhelming sense of favor,
that day follows day before me
as the path, barely discernible, still goes on.
And I go on, a step, one more. Just visible, on the mountainside
are companions, there, or there, alone, doing the plowing,
and the work of weeding.

- “Azaleas” (December, 1925)

Flowers on the Mountain (1925) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

The poem “Flowers on the Mountain” arouses the fundamental cycle of inherent solitude and sorrow, and the life and death of all creation through the flowers and birds in the mountains.

Flowers on the Mountain

Flowers bloom
On the mountain.
Spring, summer, autumn
They bloom.

Flowers bloom
On the mountain.
Where nobody sees, alone
They bloom.

Along, but for
The tiny bird
On the mountain
Living there, loving them.

Flowers fall
On the mountain.
Spring, summer, autumn
They fall.

- “Azaleas” (December, 1925)

A Little Cuckoo (1923) by Kim SowolAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

The poem “A Little Cuckoo” is based on a story told by Kim Sowol’s aunt in his childhood. When he was seven years old, his aunt Gye Hee-Young told him the story about “A Little Cuckoo” which is told to have been recited by him repeatedly, particularly the line of “Little brothers, it is I Calling Cuckoo!”

A Little Cuckoo

Cuckoo!
Cuckoo!
Little brothers, it is I
Calling "Cuckoo!"

A sister who lived by the Jindoo River
Comes to the village where once she was,
And calls cuckoo.

Years and years ago
There was a sister
Living by the River,
who took her own life for a stepmother's cruelty.

Pity on her
The poor sister.
She become a little cuckoo
When the jealousy of her stepmother killed her.

Unable to forget even after death
The little brothers she left,
She cries on at night
Moving among the mountains around the village.

- Pai Chai Issue 2 (March, 1923)

Poetry Collection of Sowol, Azaleas (1951)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol today

Kim Sowol’s works have been much loved even today. About 20% of Korean classical songs are composed for his poems, indicating that Kim Sowol’s works account for the most of the Korean classical songs written for poems. His poems have even been remade into pop songs, and recently his story has been recreated as a musical titled “Spring Night,” which gained popularity.

Poetry Collection of Sowol, Unforgettable (1963) by SUNGMOONSAAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

To date, Kim Sowol’s sole collection of poetry “Azaleas” has been published in more than 600 editions, and the accumulated number of books sold is estimated to total six million, showing that his poems are still widely read.

Selected Poems of Kim Sowol (1959) by SUNGMOONGAKAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

The literary value of Kim Sowol’s works has been recognized not only in Korea but also across the world. His poems have been translated into 13 languages and read in many countries including the U.S., Russia, France, China, and Japan.

Yoo Ju-yong 'Parents' Album (1969) by SINSEKI RecordAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Kim Sowol’s poems have also been recreated into songs and movies.

Many of his works such as “O Mother, O Sister”, “Azaleas”, “Someday Long After”, “Flowers on the Mountain”, “Invocation”, “Can’t Forget”, etc. have been recreated into pop songs and sung extensively. In particular, his poem “Parents” has been recreated as a song (lyricist: Seo Young-eun, Composer: Yoo Ju-yong) and released in 1969, which was later remade and sung by a number of famous Korean artists such as Yang Hee-eun, Kim Se-hwan, Lee Mi-ja, Silver Bell Sisters, Na Hoon-a, Moon Ju-ran, etc. and is still beloved by Koreans. Even today, many Koreans think of the song every Parents’ Day in May in Korea, and the lyrics thereof remind them of their parents.

Jeong Mi-jo 'By the Stream' Album (1972) by ASEA RecordAppenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

The poem “By the Stream”, released in 1922, was first remade into a song composed by Lee Hee-mok and sung by Kim Jeong-hee in 1967. Then, the poem regained attention as it was remade and sung by Jeong Mi-jo in 1972. The song was constantly remade by many popular Korean artists such as Jeokwoo, Sim Soo-bong, Wax, IU, etc. and is considered to be one of the most beloved songs to Koreans.

'Croossed Love' Poster (1968)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Some of Kim Sowol’s poems such as “Flowers on the Mountain”, “Name that Never Answered”, “Wangsimni”, etc. have been remade into movies. Among them, the movie “O Mother, O Sister, Let us Live by the Stream” (released on December 18, 1968), which starred the most popular actors of the time, Shin Seong-il and Yoon Jeong-hee, was named after his poems. In the movie, the main characters loved each other but separated, met again, but eventually parted in tragedy.

The First Edition of Poetry Azaleas (1925)Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

"If you would go,
Tiring of me,
Nothing will I say...
Tread gently
On my azaleas
Where the path is decked..." - Azaleas

"I will be calling you till my death
Even if I be turned into a stone
My love!
My dear love!" - Invocation

"Oh, mother and sister,
Come live with me by the river.
In garden, glows of golden sands in glitter
Hums of reeds outside rear-gate.
Oh, mother and sister,
Come live with me by the river." - O Mother, O Sister

The above lines should be all familiar to Koreans and can easily be sung with a melody. Going beyond the era, Kim Sowol’s poems still represent the heart of Koreans and give comfort to them.

Credits: Story

Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum

Director: Choi Jonghee
Advisor: Han Chong
Main Curator: Han Jiyoung
Curator: Kim Eujeong
Researcher: Lee Hyunju, Lee Seulgi
Assistant: Kim Hajung

Credits: All media
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