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  • The Culture of Learning and the Poetics of the Uncanny:An Introduction to Poems by Kim Chŏng-hŭi
  • Hyong Rhew (bio)

These poems by Kim Chŏng-hŭi (金正喜, 1786–1856), written in classical Chinese in Choson Korea, offer opportunities to encounter a poet who sighs, argues, and even giggles and sobs through poetry. What holds together the wide range of poetic occasions and activities in his work is the culture of learning and cultivation in which he was deeply steeped. The remarkable breadth and depth of that learning reveal, among other features, his pursuit of the uncanny 奇.

Kim Chŏng-hŭi's poetry is closely related to changes in Chinese poetry. He visited China only once, for about four months in 1809–1810, but in the forty-some days of his stay in Beijing during this trip, he was introduced to leading figures in intellectual circles, including Weng Fanggang (翁方綱, 1733–1818) and Ruan Yuan (阮元, 1764–1849). He was deeply influenced by this experience, and maintained his relationship with them throughout his life, exchanging many letters and obtaining a large quantity of books and epigraphic rubbings from them. He demonstrated, through poetry as well as theoretical discourse on poetics and literary history, a remarkable grasp of China's literary heritages. His poetry may be read in part as a response to poetic trends in China.

Kim Chŏng-hŭi was a man of rigorous artistic and scholarly pursuits. He was born into a privileged class, and in his era that [End Page 127] meant being embroiled in heated conflicts among political factions. In his career, he reached offices as high as chancellor of the national academy and vice minister of military affairs, but he was also demoted and banished many times. However, neither the comfort of political success nor the discomfort of lonely nights in a remote place of banishment could diminish his pursuit of learning and art.

The relationship between poetry and learning can be understood as occurring in three critical contexts. Learning is first of all a means of cultivating character and virtue, the cultivated heart being an essential part of poetry. This involves one's intellectual, moral, and artistic contemplations in an intricately interwoven process in which the virtue cultivated through learning emerges in poetry, which in turn nourishes the ongoing process of cultivation. The second context is a connection to the literary heritage and to society in general. Learning here is the source of poetic thought, expression, diction, and subject matter, and includes extensive reading, travel, and other experiences that enrich the process of writing poetry. Extensive knowledge, bookish or otherwise, provides ideas and events to write about, appropriate words and allusions, literary strategies, and artistic standards as frames of reference. The third context is scholarly discourse within poetry. Although there were some examples of discursive poems from as early as the High Tang, this became a regular feature of poetry from the Middle Tang. Heptasyllabic quatrains (七言絕句), for instance, became an important means of discussing poetic theory and the history of literature after Du Fu (杜甫, 712–770) wrote six poems in that genre. Song dynasty poetry is known for refuting commonly held interpretations of the events of the past and the present. This tradition reached its climax, for better or for worse, in the late eighteenth century, when poetry was frequently a forum for discussing complex academic issues. Numerous critics were reluctant to embrace this particular marriage of poetry and learning. On the one hand, they believed that scholarly discourse should not have to conform [End Page 128] to the constraints of prosodic requirements. On the other hand, and more importantly, they believed that poetry put to this use has nothing to do with the heart, which should be at the center of poetic practice. An emphasis on the importance of learning is a clear characteristic of Kim Chŏng-hŭi's poetic theory, and his poetry shows that he earnestly practiced the theory he inculcated. In his work, the relationship between learning and poetry is manifested in all three contexts laid out here.

Academic treatments of Kim Chŏng-hŭi's poetic practice so far may be termed problematic...