Seo Geojeong – Fourth Month, Eighth Day

Seo Geojeong (徐居正, 서거정, 1420-1488) was a early Chosun dynasty period bureaucrat, diplomat, Neo-Confucian scholar, and poet. He was of the Dalseong Seo Clan (達城徐氏, 달성서씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Gangjung (剛中, 강중); his pen names (號, 호) were Sagajeong (亭, 사가정) and Jeongjeongjeong (亭亭, 정정정); and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Munchung (文忠, 문충). At the age of 24 in 1444, Seo Geojeong passed the civil service examination (科擧, 과거), and rose through bureaucratic ranks. In 1451, he was made a At-Leisure Reader (賜暇讀書, 사가독서) and a member of the Hall of Worthies (集賢殿, 집현전). In 1460, he was made Envoy to the Ming Dynasty (謝恩使, 사은사) and traveled to China a number of times throughout his career. In the following year, Seo Geojeong was made Inspector General (大司憲, 대사헌). In 1464, he was appointed as Director of the Office of Royal Decrees (大提學, 대제학) and then two years after in 1466 progressed to Minister of Six Bureaus (六曹判書, 육조판서), one of the highest bureaucratic position in the government. In 1487, he was appointed as tutor to the crown prince, but passed away the following year.

Throughout this time, Seo Geojeong was a prolific compiler of Classical Chinese works. He participated in the compiling of various legal documents and histories, such as the Great Code of Managing the Country (經典, 경국대전), Comprehensive Mirror of the Eastern Kingdom (東鑑, 동국통감), A Geographical Survey of the Eastern Kingdom (東輿覽, 동국여지승람). Seo Geojeong put together a number of anthologies of Classical Chinese writings by Korean authors, such as the Poetry Discourses of the Eastern People (東人詩話, 동인시화), Anthology of Eastern Texts (東文選, 동문선), and Poetry and Prose of the Eastern People (東文, 동인시문). He arranged one of the earliest works of humor in Korean history in a publication titled the Comical Tales of Great Peace and Leisurely Chatter (太平閑話滑稽傳, 태평한화골계전). (Seo Geojeong also translated a number of Classical Chinese works into Korean using Hangul.) 

Furthermore, his own compositions were very well renowned. He is considered perhaps the best writer of the early Chosun dynasty period. One story has it that when Seo Geojeong met Ming officials in China, they were shocked by the high quality of his poems and invited him to compose poetry with them. Back home in Korea, his colleagues acclaimed his writings as equal in quality to that of the famous Tang dynasty poet Han Yu (韓愈, 한유, 768-824). In the poem below, Seo Geojeong describes the scenery of Seoul when returning home drunk from a friend’s place during Buddha’s Birthday (釋迦誕辰日, 석가탄신일 or 初八日, 초파일), and opines on Buddhism. The day traditionally falls on the eight day of the fourth month on the Lunar Calendar, which is May 25 on the Western Gregorian Calendar this year. The custom even today is to light lanterns, as he describes below.

四月八日, 友人家, 扶醉而歸.
사월팔일, 우인가, 부취이귀.

On the Fourth Month, Eighth Day, Returning Home from a Friend’s House, Inebriated and Slumped Over.

佛祖生辰四八日 불조생신사팔일 仄仄平平仄仄仄
都人發願千百燈 도인발원천백등 仄平仄仄平仄平 (韻)
明月梨花吾醉去 명월리화오취거 平仄平平平仄仄
人間妄想夢何曾 인간망상몽하증 平平仄仄仄平平 (韻)

The founder of Buddhism’s birthday is on the fourth month, eighth day.
People around the city send off their prayers with thousands and hundreds of lanterns.
The bright moon is like pear blossoms, as I leave in my inebriated state.
Why do mankind’s delusions and dreams overlap?

Definitions:

Buddha • progenitor • birth • day • four • eight • day
Capital • people • to send off • prayer • thousand • hundred • lantern
Bright • moon • pear • blossom • I  • drunk • to leave
People • among • absurd • to think • dreams • how • to overlap

Notes:

  • Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구) with the end of the second and fourth line riming (韻, 운) with the character 蒸(승). There is also an interesting progression in the tonal meter. It is as though the poet intended to write a recent style poem (近體詩, 근체시), but is so inebriated he falls short. The first couplet violates the rules of recent style poetry. In the first line, the last three characters are all oblique ones (下三仄, 하삼측). Furthermore, in the second line, the second and fifth characters are an isolated plain tone (孤平, 고평) and the second and sixth are not of the same tone (二四不同二六對, 이사부동이륙대). In contrast, the second couplet complies with the rules. Nevertheless between the two couplets, the adhesion rule (粘法, 점법) was not followed.
  • 扶醉(부취) – Literally “supporting a drunkard.” Here, it refers to being hauled by others to go back home.
  • 佛祖(불조) – Literally “founder of Buddhism.” Refers to Buddha.
  • Korean translation available here.

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