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  • Control as Modern in Sowŏl’s “Azaleas”
  • David R. McCann (bio)

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,Enwrought with golden and silver light,The blue and the dim and the dark clothsOf night and light and the half-light,I would spread the cloths under your feet:But I, being poor, have only my dreams;I have spread my dreams under your feet;Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

(The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899)

A complex and indeterminate condition comprises the subject of Yeats’ poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” Money, or the lack of it; transition from established forms and protocols to heartfelt gesture; art as individual expression that might also sell versus art as decoration in words, paint, or notes in or upon someone else’s property or enterprise: these comprise the parameters of the condition.

A similarly complex setting stands in the background of Sowŏl’s poem “Azaleas” generally thought to have been inspired by [End Page 323] his mentor Kim Ŏk’s translation and publication of the Yeats poem in the book Dance of Anguish, Onoe ûi mudo, published in 1921. The poem starts off as a love lyric, but then reverses the presumed pleasures of looking at the other to feelings of revulsion; the poem moves from some indeterminate space to a definite other place, Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn; the gesture of the poem is to gather the flowers from that remote location, famous for its beautiful azaleas, and bring them back to scatter under the footsteps of the one who is leaving the other in that initial, indeterminate space. Sowŏl’s poem swerves away from the Yeats model, however, in the assertion of its final line, “though I die, not one tear shall I let fall.”


When you leave, wearyof seeing me,without words, quietly I shall send you away.

From Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn,azaleas,I shall gather an armful and scatter them on your path.

Step by step on the flowersplaced before you,tread softly, deeply, and go on your way.

When you leave, wearyof seeing me,though I die, not one tear shall I let fall.

Kim Sowŏl, 1925 [End Page 324]

As it navigates this range of aspects, the poem shifts from a sad lyric of parting and resigned farewell to an assertion of control. This also differs from the command and claim of ownership at the conclusion of the Yeats poem, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” The argument of Sowŏl’s poem could be restated as You may think you are leaving me, and on terms you have decided, but I claim ownership not only of your path away, marking it with these flowers, but I also assert control of my feelings, and as a visible sign, I shall not weep. The Yeats poem seems to end with an artful sigh, while Sowŏl’s asserts control over the feelings, the body—his and the other’s—as well as the space around it, decorated, prepared, and marked for the departure with azaleas gathered from the place famous for the most beautiful in all of Korea.

The second stanza of Sowŏl’s poem might be read as an advertising sign used by a hawker to promote sales of the local product. At least within the confines of the poem, it is asserted that the speaker can get to Yŏngbyŏn, thence to Mount Yak, far enough up on the mountain to gather an armful of those famous azaleas, and then bring them back to scatter on the path away. As if that marker were not sufficient, when the poem was published for the first time, in Kaebyŏk journal, July, 1922, it bore the label Folksong Poem, Minyosi.11 This is the marker and gesture that seems deeply significant. It was not so much the location as the provenance: as folksong poem the work is marked as a descendant in a line of songs reaching back into Korea’s own history; it is pried loose from the merely...


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