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  • Kim Ŏk's Dance of Anguish and the Genesis of Modern Korean Poetry
  • Ku In-mo (bio)
    Translated by Benoit Berthelier (bio)

On Some Issues Surrounding Dance of Anguish

First published in 1921 and reedited in 1923, Dance of Anguish—an anthology of poetry in translation by the poet and translator Kim Ŏk (1896–?)—is famous for being the first book of poetry released in modern Korea. Its first edition by the Kwangiksŏgwan publishing house featured eighty-four poems, including works by nineteenth-century French poets Paul Verlaine, Remy de Gourmont, Albert Samain, and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, the Russian anarchist Vasili Eroshenko, and even the ancient Greek lyric poet, Anacreon. A number of contemporary Korean intellectuals were involved in the book's production: the artist, critic, and illustrator Kim Ch'an-yŏng (1889–1960) designed its cover, the columnist Chang Tobin (1888–1963) acted as editor, and the novelist Yŏm Sang-sŏp (1897–1963) and the poet Pyŏn Yŏng-no (1897–1961) both provided prefaces—a fact that attests not only to Kim Ŏk's status in the literary scene of the time but also to a high level of anticipation surrounding this anthology of translations.1

As a collection of poems that Kim Ŏk had, starting in 1918, previously translated and published in journals such as the T'aesŏ [End Page 197] munye shinbo (Western literature news) (泰西文藝新報), Ch'angjo (Creation) (創造), and P'yehŏ (Ruins) (廢墟), Dance of Anguish was the product of the fundamental introduction of Western poetry in modern Korea. Furthermore, since the coterie journals (tonginji) of "new literature" in which these translations were published also carried the early works and literary experiments of a flourishing new generation of young writers (starting with Kim Ŏk himself), the genesis of Dance of Anguish historically corresponds to the appearance of early Korean language poetic creation in the modern period. This means that not only were the formation of early modern Korean poetry and the translation of Western poetry concomitant but also that there is a deep connection between the two. In particular, it is important to note that this anthology of poetry in translation was published before any of the young writers—most of whom were not much more than amateurs—who contributed poems to coterie journals had published anthologies of their own. In a context where the boundaries of what constituted a specialist, a professional poet, an anthology, or even modern Korean language poetry were not clearly established, this hints at the fact that Western poetry in translation assumed the role of an exemplary model. That Dance of Anguish was the first poetic anthology to be published in modern Korean, and that its popularity among readers also made it the first to be reedited, is proof of this prototypical role of Western poetry translations.

According to the memoirs of several contemporary writers such as Yi Kwang-su (1892–1950) or Yi Ŭn-sang (1903–1982), Dance of Anguish was, at the time of its publication and for many years thereafter, a source of inspiration for the creative activities of the young Korean literary scene and was considered a model of style and grammar that modern Korean poetry should emulate.2 [End Page 198] The later reedition of the book in August 1923 by the Chosŏndosŏ chushik hoesa seems to confirm this enduring popularity. Ten new poems by Paul Fort (1872–1960) were added to this edition while the original content was entirely reworked, with the correction of some errors from the first edition and a transformation of the translations' style to bring them closer to colloquial speech and more specifically to the Pyŏngan Province dialect spoken by Kim Ŏk. We can therefore see this new edition as revealing a process by which Western poetry moved beyond rudimental translation to become poetry written in a naturally flowing Korean language—just like an original creation. More than anything, the reedition of Dance of Anguish not only reflects the interest and appetite of its contemporary readers for Western literature but also indicates how modern Korean poetry was formed at the nexus between two tendencies: translation and creation...


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