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‘Song of a Poor Woman’ by Heo Nanseolheon


Song of a Poor Woman

Who’d say I’m not a beauty enough

And I’m good with a needle and loom

But for I come from a poor family

No good matchmaker will see me


Weaving without pause into the night

The loom sobs with cold clicks

This swathe of silk on the loom

Shall make some lucky lady’s clothes


But with the scissors in hand

My ten fingers grow stiff this cold night

Making a bridal dress for someone

Every year I’m to sleep alone


Heo Nanseolheon (1563-1589) was a painter, calligrapher and poet. Only 213 of her poems survive today because she requested they were burned after her death. The ones that remain are part of a collection called Nanseolheon jip (蘭雪軒集 Nanseolheon Anthology). Her poems are involve talking about her grief of having lost two children and the loneliness and mourning that follows.

In Korea they used to use Chinese characters which meant there was a high percentage of illiteracy among the lower classes, particularly women. Nanseolheon in this poem is writing on the behalf of a poor woman who didn’t have the ability to give a voice to her story.


  1. How is the female speaker represented in the poem? How does it reflect Nanseolheon’s personal experiences within life e.g. the loss of her two children?
  2. The poem does not have any punctuation. What is the effect of this?
  3. How is the female speaker’s job and status linked within the poem? What language is used to show this?

Other Korean Literature:

  • Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung
  • Almond by Won-pyung Sohn
  • The Hen Who Dreamed she Could by Sun-mi Hwang
  • The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo
  • Pachinko by Min Lee Jin

Now why not discover Song of a Poor Woman in its original language



豈是乏容色 工鍼復工織

少少長寒門 良媒不相識

夜久織未休 戞戞鳴寒機

機中一匹練 綜作何誰衣

手把金剪刀 夜寒十指直

爲人作嫁衣 年年還獨宿



외모나 자태도 빠지지 않고

바느질도 길쌈도 뒤지지 않는데

어려서부터 집안이 빈한한 탓에

좋은 중매쟁이가 나서질 않네

밤이 깊도록 베를 짜는 손 멈출 줄 모르고

짤깍짤깍 베틀은 차갑게 울리네

베틀 가운데 이 한 필의 비단

필경 누군가의 옷이 될 테지

가위를 잡은 내 손은

추운 밤 열 손가락이 곱네

남을 위해 가례복을 지어주건만

해가 가도 이 몸은 홀로 잠드는구나

With credit to:

Poem found here and was translated by Suphil Lee Park:

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