Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Sor Juana’s condemnation of hope might seem excessive, but the poem can be better understood in the context in which it was produced. “Green enravishment” is representative of the pessimism of the Spanish Baroque. The grim vision of life and obsession with death of the Baroque came as a reaction to the optimism and affirmation of humanistic values of the Renaissance. In the poetry of the Spanish Baroque masters Francisco Goméz de Quevedo y Villegas and Luis de Góngora y Argote, one finds as recurring themes a disenchantment with the human being and a preoccupation with the ephemerality of human existence. In her philosophical-moral poems, Sor Juana elaborates on these typically Baroque ideas; she very often describes a deceptive world, the humiliations of old age, and the evanescence of earthly experience.
Such a grim vision of the world and human life precludes relying on hope or expecting future improvements. Sor Juana clearly reproves such attitudes. In the poem, hope is a state that resembles stupidity or madness, implying a voluntary or involuntary distancing from reality. Reality is the only thing one should consider, as Sor Juana states in the last stanza. One should neither project oneself into the future by expecting a change or improvement of circumstances nor impose one’s subjectivity on the world.
The poem reminds one of the Greek myth of Prometheus and Pandora. When the Greek gods created Pandora as the punishment for Prometheus’s theft of fire, they gave her a box that contained all the evils that would afflict humanity from that moment on. Included in Pandora’s box was hope. The myth leaves many questions open. Why is hope an evil? Why did it stop at the box’s rim when Pandora opened it and let the evils loose to roam the world? Hope can be seen as that which fuels human ambitions and keeps people going, but it can also be seen as a delusive, blind force that can prolong human misery, inflicting “a more protracted death,” as Sor Juana puts it. Sor Juana seems to believe that hope sets one up for greater disappointments and that a rational, positivist attitude is preferable to the ersatz energy provided by a hopeful attitude.