“Cuckoo” by Seo Jeong-Ju

Seo Jeong-Joo (서정주)

Seo Jeong-Joo (image source)

Dappled with tears was the path my love tread.
30,000 ri to the lands west of China,
he played his flute as he left for where azalea rains fall.
Ga Op-Shin, adjusting and readjusting your white collar,
you’ve gone to Pa-Chok—a place from which you won’t return.

I could’ve made for you a pair of straw shoes.
The individual strands of our sad tale woven into them.
I could’ve used the sharp blade of a knife inlaid with silver
to cut off my pointless hair and plait it into shoes for you.

The weary night sky in the light of a silk-screen lantern.
A bird’s voice soaked in the winding Milky Way,
unable to bear it and drunk with my blood,
lets rise a song of mourning.
My love, gone off alone to the heights of heaven.


눈물 아롱아롱
피리 불고 가신 님의 밟으신 길은
진달래 꽃비 오는 서역(西域) 삼만리(三萬里).
흰 옷깃 여며 여며 가옵신 님의
다시 오진 못하는 파촉(巴蜀) 삼만리(三萬里).

신이나 삼아줄 걸 슬픈 사연의
올올이 아로새긴 육날 메투리
은장도 푸른 날로 이냥 베혀서
부질없는 이 머리털 엮어 드릴걸.

초롱에 불빛, 지친 밤하늘
굽이굽이 은하물 목이 젖은 새,
차마 아니 솟는 가락 눈이 감겨서
제 피에 취한 새가 귀촉도 운다.
그대 하늘 끝 호올로 가신 님아.


Seo Jeong-Ju (1915—2000) was born in Gongchang County in North Jeolla Province. He studied at Dongguk University and also served as an honorary professor. Owing to his body of work, he also received an honorary PhD from Sookmyung Women’s University during his lifetime.

His literary legacy is complicated by his work as a Japanese sympathizer during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

“Cuckoo” (귀촉도) was first published in 1934 in the literary journal Spring and Autumn (춘추), founded by the Donga Ilbo journalist Yang Jae-Ha, (양재하) which was given to printing works related to Japanese culture and had a pro-Japanese slant. The poem would later appear in 1948 as part of a collection of poetry bearing the same name, Cuckoo (귀촉도).

His books of poetry have been translated into multiple languages, and much of the task of translating Seo Jeong-Ju’s poems into English has been done by Brother Anthony of Taize. His website offers an alternate translation of this poem, which he titles “Nightingale”.

Translation notes:

  • The title of the poem is the name of a species of bird known as the lesser cuckoo. Brother Anthony’s use of nightingale in place of cuckoo owes to the fact that in East Asian literature the song of the cuckoo is closely attributed with loss and mourning. This a common replacement made in translations of East Asian works.
  • The lesser cuckoo and the common nightingale are separate species belonging to different orders of birds. Geographically speaking, the nightingale isn’t found in Asia, and the lesser cuckoo isn’t found in North America or Europe.
  • A ri (리) is Korean a unit of measurement equal to 0.4 kilometers.
  • Pa-Chok (파촉/巴蜀) is an old/former name for Sichuan.
  • The decorative knife (은장도) and silk-screen lantern (초롱) mentioned in the poem date back to the Joseon dynasty.