Juana Inés de la Cruz Essay - Critical Essays

Cruz, Juana Inés de la


Juana Inés de la Cruz 1651–1695

(Born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje) Mexican poet, playwright, and autobiographer.

Juana is recognized as one of the most important female writers of her time. Her most acclaimed poem El sueño, is praised for its personal, lyric qualities as well as its incorporation of images from history, mythology, science, physiology, and philosophy. Her passionate defense of female intellectual rights has led many critics to cite her as a significant feminist poet and scholar.

Biographical Information

Juana was born on November 12, 1651, on a small farm southeast of Mexico City. Her parents were not married, and the fact that she was born illegitimate was a stigma that followed her the rest of her life. She was a precocious reader, and her obsessive interest in scholarly topics was considered very unusual for young girls at that time. At the age of eight, she had already composed poetry and a prologue to a play. She was sent to Mexico City to live with relatives, and it was at that time she came to the attention of the viceroy, the marquis of Mancera, and his wife. Her wit and sharp intelligence made her a favorite in their court, and she was recognized as a formidable intellectual presence. It was at court that she was asked to write verse commemorating special social or political events of the day. She entered the Carmelite convent on August 14, 1667, but a year later left to join the convent of St. Jerome. The religious life allowed her a limited degree of social independence and intellectual pursuit, and she continued to study philosophy, history, and literature. Near the end of her life, she was pressured to concentrate on only serious poetry and theological essays; her response, Respueta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz, is considered a strong self-defense of her intellectual development and has become a recognized hallmark of feminist literature. Disillusioned at the publicity this document generated, Juana withdrew from public life. She died of an unidentified plague on April 16, 1695.

Major Works

A prolific writer, Juana composed personal lyrics, poetic portraits, religious verse, and villancicos. Primarily sonnets, her lyrics are characterized by conventional structure, an intellectually rational approach, and autobiographical subject matter. Her verse expresses the themes of love, jealousy, duty, and absence and incorporates elements of mythology, theology, science, literature, and

history. In her twelve sequences of villancicos—poems sung by a choir on major feast days—Juana presents an innovative, often humorous celebration of Mexican life.

Critical Reception

Juana is almost universally lauded for her concise, spirited poems that reflect the public, religious, and social life of Mexico in the seventeenth-century. Critics note how she fused traditional poetic forms with fresh use of language to create vibrant, innovative verse. El sueño, her best-known poem, has been studied for its deft treatment of philosophical and autobiographical issues. Juana has been praised for her incorporation of images and subject matter from a diverse group of intellectual interests, such as literature, mythology, science, theology, physiology, and history. The influence of many major and minor Spanish poets have been found in her poetry, from Lope de Vega, Gongora, Quevedo, and Agustin de Salazar y Torres. Many commentators have analyzed the feminist ideology in both her prose and her poetry and consider her a strong feminist icon and a courageous, talented writer.

Principal Works


Poemas 1690

Fama y obras pósthumas 1700

Obras poéticas 1715

El sueño [The Dream] 1951

Obras completas. 4 vols, (poems, essays, and plays) 1951-1957

Other Major Works

Auto sacramental del divino Narciso (play) 1690

Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz [A Woman of Genius: The Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz] (autobiography) 1691


Robert Graves (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Juana de Asabaje," in The Crowning Privilege: The Clark Lectures 1954-1955, Cassell & Co., 1955, pp. 166-84.

[In the following essay from 1955, Graves categorizes Cruz as a woman of poetic genius and compares her to other great female poets.]

Every few centuries a woman of poetic genius appears, who may be distinguished by three clear secondary signs: learning, beauty, and loneliness. Though the burden of poetry is difficult enough for a man to bear, he can always humble himself before an incarnate Muse and seek instruction from her. At the worst this Muse, whom he loves in a more than human sense, may reject and deceive him; and even then he can vent his disillusion in a memorable poem—as Catullus did when he parted from Clodia—and survive to fix his devotion on another. The case of a woman poet is a thousand times worse: since she is herself the Muse, a Goddess without an external power to guide or comfort her, and if she strays even a finger's breadth from the path of divine instinct, must take violent self-vengeance. For awhile a sense of humour, good health, and discretion may keep her on an even keel, but the task of living to, for, and with herself alone, will sooner or later prove an impossible one. Sappho of Lesbos, Liadan of Corkaguiney, and Juana de Asbaje belonged to this desperate sisterhood: incarnations of the Muse-goddess, cut off from any simple gossiping relation with their fellow-women, who either adored them blindly or hated them blindly, and from any spiritual communion with men on equal terms. Though a woman so fated cannot help feeling physical desire for a man, she is forbidden by her identity with the Goddess from worshipping or giving herself wholly to him, even if he desires to worship and give himself wholly to her. It is possible that Clodia was another of these unfortunates, so that the harder Catullus tried to please her, the more despairingly she fought him off: playing the society harlot rather than consent to burn with him in a mutual flame.

About Clodia little is known, and about Catullus no more than his poems reveal. Even the story of Sappho survives only in fragmentary form. We learn that she was early married on Lesbos to one Cercolas, a man of no distinction, and bore him a daughter; that her learning and inventive faculties were memorable; that she tutored girls of literary promise; that she rejected the advances of Alcaeus, the leading poet of his day; that she fled to Sicily from some unnamed trouble and, after an unhappy affair with one Phaon, a common sailor, 'took the Leucadian leap': which implies some spectacular act of self-destruction. The inter-relation of these bare facts remains obscure; yet it seems that a possessed woman poet will rather subject herself to a dull husband or ignorant lover, who mistrusts her genius and may even ill-treat her physically, than encourage the love of a Catullus or Alcaeus, which demands more than it is hers to give.

The story of Liadan is also fragmentary. She was a brilliant young Irish ollamh (or master-poet) of the seventh century A.D., privileged to make semi-royal progresses from one great mansion to another, preceded by a peal of golden bells, and followed by a train of lesser bards and pupils. On one of these she went to Connaught, where the ollamh Curithir welcomed her to an ale feast. After the long exchange of riddling poetic lore in Old Goidelic, customary on such occasions, he burst out suddenly: 'Why should we not marry, Liadan? A son born to us would be famous.' She was startled into answering: 'Wait until my progress is done; then visit me at Corkaguiney and I will come with you.' He did so, only to find that Liadan, regretting her lapse, had meanwhile taken a religious vow of chastity. In despair and anger, Curithir took a similar vow, and when they went away together, as agreed, it was to the monastery of Clonfert, where Liadan insisted on placing herself under the spiritual direction of St Cummin, a hard and severe abbot. Curithir followed suit. Cummin found them two separate cells, offering Curithir the choice of either seeing Liadan without addressing her, or addressing her without seeing her. He chose the second alternative; and Liadan consented to this arrangement. They were then each in turn allowed to wander around the other's wattled cell; until Liadan persuaded Cummin to grant Curithir greater freedom, of which she must have known that he would try to take advantage. As a result, he was banished from Clonfert, and sailed away to the Holy Land; but Liadan let herself die of remorse, because she had foolishly involved him in her ruin.

Unlike Sappho and Liadan, Juana de Asbaje was born into a society where she must have seemed as portentous as a talking dove, or a dog which does long division. Neither in Lesbos nor ancient Ireland had limits been set to a woman's learning. Sappho was no freak, but merely the truest of several famous women poets. Liadan, to win her peal of golden bells, had passed the ollamh's twelve-year course in literature, law, history, languages, music, magic, mathematics, and astronomy—one of incredible stiffness—and that a woman should so distinguish herself was not considered abnormal. In seventeenth-century Mexico, however, the Church had gained such a stranglehold on learning and literature that women, doctrinally debarred from the priesthood, and despised as the intellectual and moral inferiors of their fathers and brothers, could nurse no aspirations beyond a good husband, many children, and a Christian death. Only at the Viceregal Court might a lady read poems or romances, and thus equip herself for the games of chivalry in which etiquette required her to assist the courtiers; but even so, a confessor always stood by to check all signs of vanity or immodesty.

Juana, born on November 12, 1651, was the daughter of Don Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, an immigrant Vizcayan, and Dona Isabel Ramirez, whose father, the head of a family long established in Mexico, owned a substantial estate near Chimalhuacân, and seems to have been a man of some cultivation. Juana's mother, however, could neither read nor write and, when she died some thirty years later, it transpired that Juana and her two sisters had all been born out of wedlock: presumably because the father had left behind a wife in Spain. Though he seems to have legitimized the three of them before they grew up, it has been suggested that the shame of having been born a bastard encouraged Juana to excel as a poet, while it soured her against marriage; but this is mere speculation.

One morning, when she was three years old, her sister said: 'Mother cannot have you about the house today. Come with me to school and sit quietly in a corner. ' Juana went …

… and seeing that they gave my sister lessons, I so burned with a desire to know how to read that, deceiving the teacher, as I thought, I told her that my mother had ordered her to give me lessons. She did not believe this, as it was incredible, but to humour me, she acquiesced. I continued to attend and she to teach me, not in mockery now, because experience had undeceived her; and I learned to read in such short time that when my mother (from whom the teacher had hidden the matter in order to give her the pleasure and receive the reward all at once) found out, I was already proficient. I, too, had concealed it, thinking that they would whip me for acting without orders. She who taught me still lives, God preserve her, and can testify to the truth…. I recall that in those days I had the appetite for sweets and delicacies that is common at such an age, but that I abstained from eating cheese because I had heard it said that taking this made one dull-witted; for my desire to learn was stronger than the wish to eat, which ordinarily is so powerful in children.

At the age of six or seven, she pleaded to be enrolled at Mexico City University and, since the statutes barred women from taking the course, to have her hair cut and be dressed as a boy. When her mother laughingly refused, Juana took possession of her grandfather's library, which no punishment could deter her from reading; and when she found that the most desirable books were in Latin, mastered the elements in fewer than twenty lessons and, before she was eight, could read and enjoy Plato, Aristophanes, and Erasmus. Juana now made life so difficult for her mother that she was sent to her uncle's house in Mexico City, where she taught herself literature, science, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and languages. At the age of thirteen she was presented at Court by the uncle; there her exceptional talents, vivacity, and beauty—wide-set chestnut-coloured eyes, broad brow, quick smile, straight nose, determined chin, delicate fingers—qualified her to be the darling and first lady-in-waiting of the Vicereine. For three years Juana took part in all the gallant diversions of the Viceregal Court, the cultural centre of the New World, and became its principal ornament, next to the regal pair themselves: studying every book that came to hand, and writing a profusion of court verse in Castilian, Latin, and Aztec—besides theatrical sketches, satires, verses of commendation and occasional trifles, some of them 'highly seasoned'; and finding time for poetry of a truer and more personal kind. A great many well-born young men asked her hand in marriage, but she behaved with admirable discretion and refused their offers, though the Viceroy and Vicereine would doubtless have provided a dowry.

When she reached the age of sixteen, the Viceroy heard her decried as having only a smattering of knowledge, and therefore summoned forty learned men—University professors, theologians, poets, mathematicians, and historians—to examine her in their various subjects. He afterwards recorded with satisfaction:

Like a royal galleon beating off the attacks of a few enemy sloops, so did Juana fight clear of the questions, arguments and objections that so many specialists, each in his own department, propounded….

Father Calleja, of the Society of Jesus, her first biographer, asked Juana what impression this triumph, capable of puffing up even the humblest soul to self-importance, had made upon her. She replied: 'It left me with no greater satisfaction than if I had performed a small task of hemstitching more neatly than my embroidery-teacher. ' About this time she first expressed a total aversion to marriage. Her motives have ever since been hotly debated. Father Calleja suggests that she recognized the glitter of Court life as empty delusion; never fell in love with a man; and soon realized that only service to God could give her lasting happiness. This is still the view of the Church, despite her plainly autobiographical love-poems, written at the age of sixteen: Este amoroso tormento que en mi corazón se ve, and: Si otros ojos hé visto, matenme, Fabio, tus airados ojos; and the poems of disillusion which followed, especially the famous:

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón;

and the two scorching farewell sonnets to Silvio, whom she hates herself for having loved so well.

Juana presently decided to become a nun, although, as she wrote later: Ί knew that the estate implied obligations (I am referring to the incidentals, not the fundamentals) most repugnant to my temperament.' In this course she was encouraged by her confessor, Father Antonio Nunez de Miranda, to whom 'she broached all her doubts, fears, and misgivings'. Her first attempt failed: after three months as a novice among the Barefoot Carmelites, her health broke down, and she withdrew on doctor's orders. Fourteen months later, however, she was well enough to enter a Jeronymite convent and in February 1669, having completed a short novitiate, took the veil as Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, the name by which she is now generally known.

Father Antonio did not insist that she should abandon her studies and, since the Jeronymites were the most liberal of the Orders in seventeenth-century Mexico, her cell soon became an academy, lined with books and filled with the instruments of music and mathematics. Juana learned to play several instruments, wrote a treatise on musical harmony, made a name as a miniaturist, became proficient in moral and dogmatic theology, medicine, canon law, astronomy, and advanced mathematics. Her library swelled to four thousand books, the largest in the New World, and it is recorded:

… the locutorio of the Jeronimas was frequented by many of the highest in Mexico, thanks to the renown of Sor Juana. She had loved solitude but [her presence] brought her many distinguished visitors. Not a Viceroy of that epoch but desired to know her and, from the highest to the lowest, they all consulted Juana on weighty affairs. A natural affability and graciousness made her lend herself with good will to these fatiguing visits.

Juana continued to write verses, though none for publication: mostly birthday and name-day greetings addressed to her friends at Court, dedications, epitaphs, commemorations, rhymed letters of thanks for books or musical instruments—all smooth, eloquent, and highly rhetorical. To these she added sacred sonnets, dirges, roundelays, carols, panegyrics of saints, lively allegories, and religious plays. She was also a famous cook and for ever sending her friends gifts of confectionery: almond rings, nuns' sighs (to use the politer phrase), cakes, and puff pastry of every kind. Accompanying these went humorous verses, such as this:

Frequent balls, concerts, and ballad-recitals were given in the Convent and patronized by the Viceregal pair who never failed to attend vespers there as an excuse for amusing and instructive conversation with the 'Mexican Phoenix'. It was an easy life, since no limit was put on the number of Indian serfs owned by the sisters; one convent of a hundred nuns had five hundred such serving-women working for them. Juana was unlucky, at first, to be under a jealous and narrow-minded prioress, at whom she once shouted in exasperation: 'Hold your tongue, you ignorant fool!' The prioress complained to the then Archbishop of Mexico who, as an admirer of Juana, endorsed the prioress's complaint with: 'If the Mother Superior can prove that this charge is false, justice will be done.'

Juana performed all the religious tasks laid on her, though not greedy of ecclesiastical advancement and, when on one occasion unanimously elected prioress, declined the honour. The gay times at the Convent seem to have ended with the Viceroy's term of office; but her 'passion to know' remained as strong as ever, and this, she wrote, subjected her to more criticism and resentment than the massive learning she had already acquired. On one occasion a 'very holy and candid prelate' ordered her to cease from her studies. She obeyed in so far as she read no more books …

… but since it was not within my power to cease absolutely, I observed all things that God created, the universal machine serving me in place of books.

During the three months of the prelate's continuance in office, she studied the mechanics of the spinning top, and the chemical reactions of convent cookery, making important scientific discoveries. Later, when she fell seriously ill, the doctors also forbade her to read, but …

… seeing that, when deprived of books, her cogitations were so vehement that they consumed more spirit in a quarter of an hour than did four days' reading,

they were forced to withdraw their prohibition.

Juana's confessor, still the same Father Antonio, now tried to dissuade her from seeing and writing to so many friends and learned laymen, on the ground that this was irreconcilable with her profession; and when she would not listen to him, resigned his charge. Next, she was ordered by an unnamed superior to refute an admittedly unorthodox sermon preached by a famous theologian, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Vieira; which Juana did in a letter of such masterly argument, that when it was published (without her knowledge or permission) the most learned doctors of Spain and Portugal were highly diverted to find that this Mexican nun had completely demolished Vieira's thesis; and sent her profuse congratulations. But one old friend, the Bishop of Puebla, qualified his praises with the suggestion that the letter proved how sadly she had wasted her talents in writing shallow verses and studying irrelevant and profane subjects; instead, she should have devoted herself to the unmasking of doctrinal error, now so rife in Christendom. Juana, deeply offended, replied that she made no claim to academic distinction, had written the letter only because ordered to do so and, when she saw it in print, had burst into tears, 'which never come easily to me'. Then, rather than become a theologian, to the exclusion of all her other studies, she grimly sold her entire library for the benefit of the poor, together with all her musical and mathematical instruments; and submitted to the severest conventual discipline, which Father Antonio, returning in joy, unsuccessfully begged her to moderate. This spectacular event created such a stir that the new Archbishop of Mexico similarly sold all his books, jewels, valuables, and even his bed.

In 1695, some of the sisters fell ill of the plague, and Juana, though weakened by nearly two years of rigorous pen ance, set herself to nurse them; but presently caught the infection and succumbed. The Jeronymite records contain this sentence, scratched with Juana's fingernail dipped in her own blood—because she had renounced the use of pen and ink:

Immediately above will be noted the day, month and year of my death. For the love of God and of His Purest Mother, I pray that my beloved sisters, both those now living and those who have gone before, will recommend me to Him—though I have been the worst woman in the world.

Signed: I, Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Juana de Asbaje wrote true poetry before she was seventeen; but what of her heiress and successor, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? We can applaud the dazzling fantasy of Sor Juana's religious verse, its perfect sense of rhythm and sure balance of phrases, its essential clarity, which shames the interlaced extravagances of contemporary Gongorists, and the universality of knowledge displayed by the incidental references. Yet the appeal is almost wholly to the intellect. Juana never became mystically involved with Christ. She accepted Him as a theological axiom, rather than as the divine bridegroom whom St Teresa knew, and of whom the medieval Irish nun wrote:

Jesukin, my Jesukin
My small cell doth dwell within!
With prelates have I nought to do:
All's untrue but Jesukin.

She was no longer the Muse of every Mexican gallant, though flatterers continued to call her 'The Tenth Muse'; and as an intelligence she now functioned in a field which the ecclesiastics, to whom she had promised obedience, were always seeking to reduce; being forced to play a religious part in which she could not wholly believe, because it was repugnant to her temperament, yet at last playing it so successfully as at once to shame them and defeat her own ends. When she had sold her books and cut herself off from the world, the only solace left was the fellowship of her ignorant sisters, and even this seems hardly to have been an unmixed blessing:

It happened that among other favours, I owe to God an easy and affable nature and the nuns loved me for it (without taking notice, like the good people they were, of my faults) and greatly enjoyed my company; knowing this and moved by the great love I had for them—since they loved me, I loved them more—there were times when they intruded somewhat, coming to me to console themselves and to give me the recreation of their company.

It was in no spirit of mock-humility that she described herself as the worst of women; writing the confession in her own blood. She meant that when she first took the Leucadian Leap by becoming a nun, it had not been into the sea of pure religion. Still keeping her intellectual pride, her thirst for scientific knowledge and her pleasure in profane authors, lay visitors and the minor pleasures of the flesh, she could remember what it had been to love and to write poetry; and her ancient powers still occasionally reasserted themselves, for instance in some of the songs, based on the Canticles, which enliven her religious play The Divine Narcissus. Juana called herself the worst of women, it seems, because she had lacked sufficient resolution either to stick it out as a Muse, or make a complete renegation in the style of Liadan.

Now, though both Liadan and Juana were young and famous women poets who took vows of celibacy and submitted to ecclesiastical discipline, it was Juana's Irishness, rather, that first led me to compare them. Juana not only combined Christian ethics with pagan emotion, and profound learning with easy lyricism, like the ollamhs, but had inherited their technique by way of the early medieval Latin hymns and the anti-monastic ballads of the Goliards. She too loved the short rhymed quatrain, and the internal rhymes of her Carol to St Peter.

Y con plumas y voces veloces
Y con voces y plumas las sumas
Cantad …

were in the purest Bardic tradition, like St Bernard of Cluny's Rhythm, which begins:

Hora novissima, tempora pessima
Sunt; vigilemus
Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter
file supremus …

Moreover, she excelled in satire of the scorching Irish sort that would raise blotches on the victim's face: her "Lines to Sour-Faced Gila" might have been written by the arch-ollamh Seanchan Torpest himself, notorious for having rhymed rats to death. Perhaps Juana's Vizcayan blood was at work; an ancient tie of kinship and religion bound the Western Irish with the Northern Spanish—both peoples had worshipped the same pre-Christian Muse-goddess and the doomed hero Lugos, or Lugh, her gifted son.

Gerard Flynn (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Sor Juana," in Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, Twayne, 1971, pp. 82-98.

[In the following essay, Flynn provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Cruz's poetry.]

Sor Juana was in effect a poet laureate who had to write many poems for the important occasions of Church and State. For the Church she wrote a series of villancicos celebrating certain feast days of the year. Most of them were to be combined with the prayers of matins, and a few were to be sung at the Epistle, the Offertory, and the Ite missa est of the Mass.

Those villancicos that were written as "complete sets for matins" were broken up into three nocturnes matching the three parts of matins. The first nocturne had the task of introducing the mystery of the feast day or the history of the saint whose memory was being celebrated. The second nocturne was generally less grave and drew images from the arts and sciences: medicine, music, fencing, astronomy, philosophy, teaching, painting, physics, and history. In most cases the second nocturne also had the jácara, a lively piece that provided relief for the congregation. In the villancicos for the Immaculate Conception, 1689, Sor Juana describes the purpose of the jácara; the chorus has sung very well and now: "one singer alone wanted / in a jacarandina / to soothe with levity / the gravity of the tones."

The third nocturne had the remaining two poems of the set and usually repeated a previous theme. One of these poems was the ensalada, a mixture of verses that were for the most part frivolous. Nevertheless, it is the ensalada that has the one durable part of all these villancicos, the poetry of the Negro.

The Negroes appear in the following verses of the villancicos: Assumption 1676, VIII; Immaculate Conception 1676, VIII; St. Peter Nolasco 1677, VIII; Assumption 1679, VIII; Assumption 1685, VIII; St. Joseph 1690, VIII. The purpose of the Negro verses was to amuse a congregation that was tired after a long time at prayer, but in effect they capture the religious spirit of the occasion better than the other verses.

The Church preaches the gospel of the uncircumcision, which is not confined to any nation because of its purity of blood, superior law, politics, economics, or philosophy. The gospel is meant for all, the meanest slave and the greatest king. And so the Negroes can sing to their mother Mary, who is also the mother of God.

The Feast of the Assumption 1676
The Spanish of the Negroes The same verses in ordinary Spanish. An English translation.
1. Cantemo, Pilico, que se va las Reina 1. Cantemos, Perico, que se va la Reina 1. Petey, let's sing, the Queen is going away
y dalemu turo una noche buena. y démosle todos una noche buena. let us all bid her good night.
2. Iguale yolale Flacico, de pena, que nos deja ascula 2. Igual es llorar Blasico, de pena, que nos deja oscuros 2. Better to cry Blaisey, from sorrow since she leaves us dark (in darkness)
a turo las negla. a todos los negros. all us Negroes.
1. Si las Cielo va 1. Si al Cielo va 1. If she's going to Heaven
y Dioso la lleva y Dios se la lleva and God takes her away
¿pala qué yolá ¿para qué llorar why should we cry
si Eya sa cuntenta? si Ella está contenta? if She is happy?
Sará muy galana Estará muy galana She must be beautiful
vitita ri tela vestida de tela dressed up in silk
milando la Sole mirando el Sol seeing the Sun
pisando la Streya. pisando las Estrellas. walking the Stars.
2. Déjame yolá 2. Déjame llorar 2. Let me cry
Flacico por Eya Blasico por Ella Blaisey for her
que se va, y nosotlo que se va y nosotros for she's going and
la Oblaje nos deja. el Obraje nos deja. she leaves us the workhouse.
1. Caya, que sa siempre 1. Calla, que está siempre 1. Quiet, she will always
milando la Iglesia; mirando la Iglesia; be watching the Church;
mila las Pañola mira a la Española look at the Spanish lady
que se quela plieta. que se queda prieta (or apretada). how somber she is.
2. Bien dici, Flacico 2. Bien dices, Blasico 2. You are right, Blaisey
tura sa suspensa; toda está suspensa; she is all amazed;
si tú quiele, demo si tú quieres, demos if you want, let us
unas cantaleta. una cantaleta. sing in jest.
1. Nomble de mi Dioso 1. Nombre de mi Dios 1. By God's name
que sa cosa buena! que es cosa buena! that's a good idea!
Aola, Pilico Ahora, Perico Now, Petey
que nos mila atenta. que nos mira atenta. since she's looking at us.
Estribillo Estribillo Refrain
!Ah, ah, ah, !Ah, ah, ah, Ah, ah, ah,
que la Reina se nos va! que la Reina se nos va! the Queen has gone and left us!
!Uh, uh, uh. !Uh, uh, uh, Hu, hu, hu,
que non blanca como tù, que no es blanca como tù She is not white like you,
nin Pañó que no sa buena, ni Española que no es buena nor Spanish, which is not good,
que Eya dici: So molena que Ella dice: morena cause she says I am dark
con las Sole que miré! con el Sol que me miró! from the Sun that looked on me!
!Ah, ah, ah, !Ah, ah, ah. Ah, ah, ah,
que la Reina se nos va! que la Reina se nos va! the Queen has gone and left us!

Here is the sentiment of the poor and downtrodden. The Queen has gone to heaven where she's looking after all her friends, not just the people from high society. She is a dark queen (la Virgen Morena) who has a special love for Petey and Blaisey. Even for the poor, life is a comedy.

In the last villancico of the Immaculate Conception 1676 series, a Negro sings his praises of the Virgin. He is happy and he is singing because he knows how to praise his queen as well as the next man:

Acá tamo tolo
Zambio, lela, lela,
que tambié sabemos
cantaye las Leina.

All we mixed bloods (zambos)
Are here, lela, lela,
cause we too know how
to sing to the Queen.

He is told to go away on this feast of purity and light, for anything black doesn't fit in with the celebration. But he answers:

Aunque neglo, blanco
somo, lela, lela,
que el alma rivota
blanca sa, no prieta.

Although black, we are
white, lela, lela,
cause the good soul
is white, not black.

There is no stopping this fellow. The rest of the verses are his. The devil grew bold and tried to harm the Virgin, but she gave that scoundrel (dirty dog) just what he deserved.

The villancicos of St. Peter Nolasco 1677 also show the feeling of the Negroes towards the whites. The black man is the poor man who works hard for little pay. He has heard that St. Peter Nolasco redeems the slaves but he cannot believe he did anything for the blacks because he knows from experience the whites get all the good things and live up there in that palace. In a primitive way his thought is very cynical and uncharitable, and the Negro repents for having had it:

La otra noche con mi conga
turo sin durmi pensaba
que no quiele gente plieta
como eya so gente branca.
Sola saca la Pañola;
!pues, Dioso, mila la trampa
que aunque neglo gente somo

aunque nos dici cabaya!
Mas ¿qué digo, Dioso mío?
!Los demono, que me engaña,
pala que esé mulmulando
a esa Redentola Santa!
El Santo me lo perrone,
que só una malo hablala,
que aunque padesca la cuepo
en ese libla las alma.

The other night with my wife
I couldn't sleep and thought
he doesn't like black people
as well as his own white.
He only helps the Spaniard;
well, God, see the hitch
cause we are people, though we're black
though they call us burro!
But what am I saying, God?
the devil he deceives me,
to make me gossip
about that redeeming Saint.
I hope the Saint will pardon me,
and all my evil chatter
for though the body suffers
that's what frees the soul.

In the Assumption 1679 series of villancicos there are two princesses from Guinea with bundles, who are on their way to market. These salesladies put down their bundles and start to sing:

2. Dejemoso la cocina
y vamoso a turo trote,
sin que vindamos gamote
nin garbanzo a la vizina:
qui arto gamote, Cristina,
hoy a la fieta vendrá.

Let us leave the food
and go as fast as we can
without selling sweets (potatoes)
or chickpeas to the women:
for many sweets, Christina,
will come to the fiesta today.

The Lady Mary ("Ledy Melly") was a good slave and that's why they freed her and sent her up to heaven:

Milala como cohete
que va subiendo lo sumo.

See her like a skyrocket
climbing in the sky.

For the theologian the Assumption is a mystery of Faith that demands careful study, but for these two princesses with their graphic minds the Assumption is like the path of a skyrocket.

In the Assumption 1685 series the camotero (vendor of sweet potatoes) is a man on very personal terms with his heavenly mother. He would never think of calling himself "one of the faithful," but only "your black Tony" (tu negro Anton), and he asks Mary to wait before ascending until he can bring his gifts to her:

Espela, aun no suba,
que to negro Antón

te guarra cuajala
branca como Sol.

Wait, don't go yet
for your black Tony
has curds for you
white as the Sun.

God must delay His plan in History until Antón can deliver his salted chickpeas, fine sweets, and curds to his mother, Mary. Like the two princesses of Guinea, Anton has a graphic way of saying things. Who but he would think to say:

¡Oh Santa María
que a Dioso parií
sin haber comadre
ni tené doló!

Oh Holy Mary,
who delivered God
without a midwife
or labor pains!

The Negro verses appear in the last villancico of each set. Of all the verses they alone have preserved for us the religious meaning of the occasion.

A good many poems that Sor Juana composed for State occasions (the birthday of the king, the birthday of the victory, and so forth) will not stand the test of literary criticism; the same may be said of the villancicos, which she wrote for Church occasions. Sor Juana led a liturgical life, of which the feasts of the villancicos were a part, and so they have a certain sincerity and genuineness not to be found in many of her secular pieces; nevertheless, they are not poetry.

The villancicos rely too much on paradoxes and other trick devices. If the reader will picture for a moment the Cathedral of Mexico or Puebla in the early hours of the morning with the choir and religious singing the prayers of matins, he can see the problem of the nun. In between antiphon, psalm, and lesson, she had to supply villancicos that were also to be sung, and she could not appeal to the eyes of those present but only to their ears, since the villancicos do not provide the spectacle of theater. Sor Juana had to create means of attracting and holding attention.

Thus she puts a paradox in one of her poems: did the Blessed Mother descend or ascend when she was assumed into heaven? She ascended with joy into the arms of her Son; "the rest was a descent."

Another paradox is the bet between St. Joseph and God, and the idea that Joseph wakes up when he sleeps, because an angel reveals to him in a dream that his virgin wife is to bear the Son of God.

Another trick device is an enigma or riddle:

—I shall propose a riddle.
—And I shall answer it.

One singer argues that the Feast of the Assumption is August 15, and another argues that it is March 25 (the Incarnation) because the real assumption or rising of the Mother of God was her union with Christ. Perhaps no theologian will object to this argument but the literary critic will have to agree with Menéndez Pelayo, who called these verses mental gymnastics and disapproved of them.

In some of the villancicos Sor Juana mixed Spanish and Nahuatl, or Spanish and Latin:

Yo al Santo lo tengo
mucha devoción,
y de Sempual Xuchil
un Xuchil le doy.
(Feast of St. Peter Nolasco 1677, Villancico VIII)

Tristes te invocamus:
concede, gloriosa,
gratias quae te illustrant,
dotes quae te adornant.
(Feast of the Assumption 1679, Villancico II).

The villancicos are important documents for the biographer of Sor Juana and for the historian of the seventeenth century. One of the villancicos is written with the simplicity of a catechism; another shows that Sor Juana knew the doctrines of latria and hyperdulia; another shows she knew the procedure of a Scholastic debate; in another she applies the idea of hylomorphism to the Assumption. There are scores of ideas and expressions such as those just mentioned in the two-hundred-odd pages of the villancicos. As for the historian, he will find many social and cultural references in these verses: a Negro vendor of sweet potatoes; a Biscayan; two sacristans; an idea from physics; an image from the science of the day; the translation of the Bible by the Seventy-Two, comparisons from music, rhetoric, teaching, philosophy, and fencing; some Portuguese; even a reference to the mal francés!


The lyrical poetry of Sor Juana consists of metrical combinations known as romances, endechas, redondillas, décimas, glosas, sonetos, liras, ovillejos, and silvas. A careful reading of this lyrical poetry will show that it can be divided into three parts: (A) the courtly poems, that is, poems Sor Juana wrote for the viceroy's court, for dignitaries, or for the king; (B) the love poems; and (C) thirteen sonnets.

A. The Courtly Poems

The courtly poems, which comprise about three-fourths of Sor Juana's lyrical poetry, are not distinguished verses. Some of these poems are for an archbishop, a marchesa, the viceroy, the king, a young doctor; others are based on an anagram; others are written in Latin or translate a Latin poem; others praise contemporaries of Sor Juana and ask them for verses. Other courtly poems accompany a gift Sor Juana is sending to a friend; they answer the poem of another writer; they are entries in a poetic contest; or they play with the language of Scholastic philosophy. Most of these poems are little more than clever exercises.

Occasionally the reader comes upon some good verses in the courtly poems; for example, the following lines from the romance "Si daros los buenos años," which was presented to the viceroy on his birthday:

Grey hairs must be sought
before they are painted by time:
whoever would have them finds joy,
affliction whoever awaits them.
The fool who finally walks
the premise of old age,
combs shame rather than locks,
repeats outrages rather than years.
The wise young man in short
leaves an eternal frame
for his Life, and with his fame
marks eternity.

B. The Love Poems

The second group consists of some fifty love poems, about a fifth of Sor Juana's lyrical poetry. Most of these are as undistinguished as the courtly poems, but a dozen of them are worthwhile and two are excellent. The better love poems seem to come from Sor Juana's own experience rather than from an occasion of Church or State, or from a literary fashion of the day, such as an anagram or a polite poetical debate.

The romances are the least inspired of Sor Juana's love poems and do not impart any personal warmth. They deal with themes that border on the philosophical; for example, the poem "Supuesto, discurso mío" argues the problem of love and disdain. The poetess loves Fabio, who does not return her love, and she is loved by Silvio, for whom she has no feeling. What is she to do? Is she obligated to Silvio?

It is not harsh, not tyranny
the passions being the same,
his lack of self-restraint
and his desire that I myself restrain?

To love him because he loves me
is not rightly called love,
for he loves not, who supposes
that to love he must be loved.
Love is not correspondence;


And indeed, though so much truth
were wanting on my behalf,
my will belongs to Fabio,
Silvio and the world please pardon.

In the romance "Ya que para despedirme" the theme is the absence of the lover. This absence and the jealousy accompanying it are the most common themes in the romances, and they carry over into the sonnets and endechas. For example, in the endecha "Prolija memoria," the reader comes upon the lines:

Why do you air
the idle question,
whether inconstancy
be the child of absence?
I well know the frailty
of nature
whose one constancy
is to be not so.

The endechas are rather better than the romances, but they do not measure up to Sor Juana's sonnets and liras. For example, in the poem "Si acaso, Fabio mío" the reader finds these lines:

hear, in this sad dirge
the tender harmony
that soothes, a funeral rite,
the dying swan.
And ere eternal Night
with deadly opaque key
the dim light snuffs
of my fainthearted eyes,
give me the last embrace,
whose tender ties
unify bodies,
thus identify souls.
Let night hear thy sweet voice
and let it not smother
in troubled cadence,
thy words entire.
From thy countenance on mine
make in love an image
and bathe these frigid cheeks
with ardent tears.

Although these verses show more warmth than the romances, they retain a certain intellectual aloofness. In the lines "unify bodies / thus identify souls" ("siendo union de los cuerpos / identifican almas") the thought would have made a splendid verse if it had not been expressed so prosaically. Once again Sor Juana is abusing the language of philosophy.

The two best sonnets are "Esta tarde, mi bien, cuando te hablaba," and the "Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo":

This eve, my love, when I spoke with thee
I saw by thy gesture and face
How with words I could not move thee
And I wanted thee to see my heart.
And Love, who helped my design
Conquered what seemed scant of gain
For amongst the tears that sorrow poured
My heart fell in drops undone.
No more rigor, my love, no more;
Jealous tyrants need torment thee no more,

Nor vile suspicion test thy quietude
With foolish shades, with empty clue,
Since in liquid humor thou hast seen and touched
My heart between thy hands undone.

Hold on, shade of my evasive love,
Image of the spell I most adore,
Fair illusion for which happily I die,
Sweet fiction for which painfully I live.
If for the lodestone of thy grace
My breast serves, obedient steel,
Why must thou please and enamor,
If fleeting thou willst to fool me?
But thou may not boast self-satisfied
That thy tyranny vanquished me,
For though thou leavest the close tie deceived,
Which thy fantastic form has wound,
It little matters thou foolest arms and breast
If my phantasy has captured thee in chains.

In many of the other sonnets Sor Juana unfortunately returns to the clever manner of the romances, for example:

He who ungrateful leaves me, lovingly I seek;
He who lovingly seeks me, ungratefully I leave;
Constant I adore him who disdains my love;
I disdain him who constantly seeks my love.

For the present writer, the best of Sor Juana's love poems is the one called "Amado dueño mío," which is written in liras. This poem expresses the feelings that come from the absence of the loved one. Here are some selections:

My beloved lord,
Hear a while my tired lament
which I to the wind confide
that quickly it might reach thine ear
if the dolorous plaint does not vanish
like my hope, in air.
(vv. 1-6)

If thou seest the loquacious stream
woo the meadow's flowers,
a pleasing lover that charms
and tells them of his care,
my grief will have thee know
how his current laughs fed by mine own woe.
(vv. 19-24)

If thou seest the wounded stag
down the mountain, hurried,
seeking anguished
ease in a frozen stream,
and thirsty plunge the waters,
in anguish not ease he follows me.
(vv. 37-42)

If thou seest clear the sky
such is the candor of my soul;
and if, avaricious of light
the day is veiled with gloom,
it is in inclement obscurity
the image of thine absence and my life,
(w. 49-54)

When will thy sonorous voice
wound these ears;
and when will the soul that loves thee,
drowned in joy's delights,
abandon these eyes to laughter
as it hastens from them to greet thee.
(vv. 67-72)

When shall I behold the gracious line
of thy quiet countenance
and that unspoken joy,
beyond the pale of human pen,
for all is ill defined
that does not fit experience,
(vv. 79-85)

C. The Philosophical and Historical Sonnets

The rest of Sor Juana's lyrical poetry consists of thirteen sonnets with philosophical or historical themes. The eight philosophical sonnets repeat the theme of man's return to dust; one of them combines the return to dust with the theme of carpe diem (seize the day). Here are three of these sonnets: [This sonnet concerns a portrait of Sor Juana.]

This hued deceit thou seest,
which boasting art's comeliness
with colors' false syllogism
is a delusive betrayal of sense;
yes this, where flattery has thought
to reprieve the horrors of years,
and by subduing time's arrogance
to triumph over age and oblivion,
is esteem's vain dissimulation
is a fragile flower to the wind
is a useless refuge against fate
is foolish errant diligence
is decrepit care, and understood,
is corpse, is dust, is shade, is nought.

[This sonnet is a stricture for a rose, and for those like a rose.]

Rose divine in tender bloom,
thou art in thy fragrant grace
beauty's teacher, born to the purple,
a white snow tenet of comeliness.
Model of the human form
example of charm's emptiness
in whose being nature has joined
the happy cradle and wan sepulchre.
How haughty is thy pomp, how presumptuous,
how proud, thou scornest the threat of death
and later, faint and withdrawn,
of thy withered self givest the despondent sign,
for in foolish life and wise demise
thou teachest dying and living showest deceit.

[This sonnet says that Death is better than exposure to the outrages of old age.]

Celia watched a meadow rose
happily boasting empty splendor,
while with carmine salve and scarlet
it bathed its soft made countenance;
and she said—Enjoy with no fear of Fate
thy buoyant years' quick course
for tomorrow's death cannot quit
what today thou hast possessed;
and though death will come now soon
and thy scented life will away,
thou shalt not mind thy dying, so beautiful, so gay:
see how experience teaches thee
thou art fortunate dying in bloom
not knowing old age's vehemence.

There are five historic-mythological sonnets, which concern women from antiquity. Two of them praise the gallant Lucretia, a favorite of Sor Juana, who fought so bravely to preserve her purity against the lecherous Tarquino. The best of these sonnets is about Pyramus and Thisbe.

Pyramus and Thisbe appear in the Metamorphoses of Ovid. They were legendary lovers of Babylon who spoke to each other through an opening in a wall between their houses. One night they planned to meet by a white mulberry tree. Thisbe arrived first at the tree but fled when she saw a lioness. She left a blood-smeared garment, which Pyramus found. Thinking her dead, he took his own life with a sword, and she, on returning, did the same by plunging the weapon into her breast. Pyramus blood caused the white mulberries to turn red, and Thisbe's, mixed with his, caused them to turn purple.

Here is Sor Juana's sonnet on their tragic love:

Of a mournful mulberry the black shade,
of a thousand horrors and confusions full,
in whose hollow trunk today there still resounds
the echo that sorrowfully invokes the name of Thisbe;
this shade covered the green-hued carpet
where Pyramus in love opened the vein
of his heart, and This be in her pain
made the mark that still astounds the world.
But seeing Love in so great affliction,
Death took pity on them
and joined their breast in one tight bond.
Alas, poor and unhappy is she
who offers not her breast to her own Pyramus
not even for a sword's hard blade.

A writer's attitude towards nature is important since it throws light on the ultimate meaning of his literature. The writings of Sor Juana Inès reveal that her basic attitude towards nature comes from Scholasticism, the doctrine of the medieval school and Golden Age Spain. Sor Juana may have exalted nature in The Dream and in some of her other verses, for example the passage in which Echo tempts Narcissus with her possessions, but it is Scholasticism that permeates everything she wrote.

Nature in Scholastic philosophy has a strict order of inanimate matter, vegetable life, sensitive life, and rational life. These various levels of being come under the Aristotelian doctrine of hylomorphism, according to which all bodies consist of two essential principles, matter and form. In her loa to Friar Diego Velazquez, Sor Juana has a figure called Nature say: "since I am Nature/ in common, to whose wise/ always operative idea/ the sweet union/ of matter and form is due…. In short I am she/ who makes the vegetal grow/ the rational discourse/ the sensitive to feel."

The language of hylomorphism appears in The Divine Narcissus. Here is an example: In the era before Christ's coming, Gentilism (the pagan world) has an argument with Synagogue (the world that knows divine revelation). Gen tilism has many beautiful myths and stories to tell, but Synagogue has the truth. It would be nice if they could come to some sort of an agreement. Gentilism says that she will provide the matter for a sacramental play if Synagogue will supply the form or meaning. She concludes her speech to Synagogue: "I do not understand you well, but since you propose that I give you the matter so that you may inform it with another soul, another meaning my eyes do not recognize, I shall give you from my literature the poetic beauty of the story of Narcissus." ("So that you may inform it with another soul": according to hylomorphism, the form of a living being is its soul.)

According to Scholasticism there is a strict order within every part of nature. All material beings are composed of matter and form, that is, informed matter. Forms, however, differ in dignity and the resultant beings fall into a hierarchy:

Man—rational form (spiritual soul)

Animals—sensitive form (material soul)

Plants—vegetable form (material soul)

Minerals—a non-vital form.

[Sor Juana] brings up this doctrine in The Dream. Furthermore, Sor Juana frequently uses the word "order" to describe nature. In the third loa for the birthday of the king she writes: "For he [the king] who from the common order / is exempt, / does not need years / to be wise." Sor Juana is saying here that owing to the order of nature all men must have sense perception and experience if they are to acquire knowledge; that is, they must grow old in years to become wise. The glorious king, however, does not need to grow in years to acquire knowledge and wisdom since he is above nature. Sor Juana is exercising a poetic license in order to praise the king. She does not mean to be taken literally.

Sor Juana's attitude towards nature has an effect on her attitude towards the social order. Society has a strict hierarchy. This explains Sor Juana's, profound respect for the monarchy in all the loas.

Scholastic theology also sees an order in nature, but it allows for God's taking exception to that order. In the first loa, to Charles II, the figure called Love says that the various figures in the poem must speak according to their grade and must keep "the natural order the powerful Hand of God put on us when He took us out of Chaos." Love is talking here about Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, the four elements who must praise King Charles in their natural order. This order in nature is extremely important to Sor Juana.

Nature is the creation of God and its main purpose is to reflect the Beauty of the Creator, to follow Him. He is nature's polestar:

If you can in Narcissus [he has not yet become Christ in the play]
so much perfection suppose,
for you say his beauty is
of hearts the lodestone
and that nymphs and shepherds follow him
and not these alone
but birds and beasts
mountains, dales
streams and fountains
meadows, trees and flowers;
with how much greater truth
is this high perfection
seen in God
for whose Beauty the Spheres
in mirrors' guise
behold themselves unworthy;
and for Whom all creatures
(though there were not cause
of so many gifts
and marvellous favors)
for His Beauty alone
would owe Him adoration
and Whom Nature
(that's my name) raptly
seeks as its Center,
follows as its Star?

Nature glorifies God and gives Beauty back.

The order of nature does not stand by itself but has a relation to grace that has changed several times in the past. In the beginning nature and grace were wedded so that nature was benign, but the devil trapped man into offending God and many special graces were removed.

This separation of grace and nature caused man to be unhappy, reduced him to misery, and caused nature to cease being benign. There was, for example, the Deluge. God is not a passive witness to nature and its relation with grace. He can if He will arrest the operations of nature or go beyond them, as He did when He brought about the virgin birth. God also refused to admit the separation of grace and nature in the instance of the Immaculate Conception, which is alluded to when Narcissus looks into the fountain (Mary) and marvels at the untarnished beauty there. God also takes exception to nature when he allows miracles. In the sacramental play Joseph 's Scepter there is a miracle above nature when the boy Joseph foretells the future fat and lean years of Egypt. No natural knowledge can account for this prophecy, which is made possible only by special grace.

Sor Juana may have exalted nature in The Dream and a few other passages of her works, but her verses constantly show that for her nature comes from the Hand of God and imposes order. This is the nature of the Scholastics.

Arthur Terry (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Human and Divine Love in the Poetry of Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz," in Studies in Spanish Literature of the Golden Age, Tamesis Books, 1973, pp. 297-313.

[In the following essay, Terry analyzes Juana Inès de la Cruz's treatment of divine and romantic love in her verse.]

The "sincerity" or otherwise of Sor Juana's love poems no longer seems a crucial question; in the words of Octavio Paz [in Las peras del olmo, 1957]: "Poco importa que esos amores hayan sido ajenos ο propios, vividos ο sonados: ella los hizo suyos por gracia de la poesía". This should make it easier to see her work in relation to earlier seventeenth-century love poetry, and perhaps especially to that of writers like Polo de Medina and Bocángel who make a point of reproducing the kind of theoretical discussion which seems to have been common in the Academies of the time. It also enables one to do justice to her strong dramatic talent (by no means confined to her plays), by suggesting a type of experience in which imagination and intellect are continually brought to focus on the materials of real life. Nevertheless, certain problems remain: one of them is to know how seriously to take such poems—not in biographical terms, but as a way of expressing certain themes and attitudes; another, which follows from this, is to find a way of defining their relationship to other aspects of Sor Juana's writings.

Some years ago [in his Baroque Times in Old Mexico, 1959], Professor Irving A. Leonard attempted to solve the second problem by suggesting that certain of the love poems might be read allegorically. The ones he had in mind were the three consecutive sonnets on the theme of "encontradas correspondencias": "Que no me quiera Fabio, al verse amado …", "Feliciano me adora y le aborrezco …" and "Al que ingrato me deja, busco amante… ". Each of these poems turns on the same situation: the speaker loves A, who does not love her; at the same time, she is loved by B, whom she rejects. The treatment is extremely schematic: taken as a group, the poems seem to represent what Professor Elias Rivers [in Antología, 1965] has called "una 'cuestión de amor' trovadoresca", in which the poet's own feelings are perhaps not very deeply engaged. On Leonard's reading, however, they form a code which, once deciphered, can be seen to relate to a quite different situation which, for obvious reasons, could not be described directly. So A (Fabio-Feliciano) stands for the spirit of intellectual enquiry which runs counter to the demands of Sor Juana's religious vocation and Β (Silvio-Lisardo) for the love of the Church which she is unable to accept unconditionally. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to justify such a theory; as Dario Puccini has pointed out [in Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, 1967], there is nothing to suggest that Sor Juana's desire for knowledge affected the basic orthodoxy of her ideas, or that her moments of self-criticism ever induced her to see her difficulties in such clearcut terms. Here, once again, one is forced to dismiss the possibility of biographical interpretation; if the poems have a deeper meaning, it is hardly likely to be of this kind, and it seems better to confine one's speculations to the kind of tradition with which Sor Juana herself was familiar.

At the same time, if one attempts to read her love poems at their face value, they may appear disconcerting, especially if one tries to see them as a whole. Several of the finest, like "Si acaso, Fabio mío … " and "Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo … " are moving and accomplished poems by any standard, and lose none of their effect when read in isolation. Others—the majority—contain a good deal of theorizing, which is not always applied to a particular situation. It is here that one might expect to find an explanation of the attitudes which are embodied in the more directly emotional poems, though, in fact, this is not always so.

This can best be illustrated by comparing two poems on the same theme, "Supuesto, discurso mío …" and "Al amor, cualquier curioso …". Like the three sonnets already mentioned, both these poems hinge on the idea of "correspondencia", that is to say, on the possibility of a mutual relationship between a pair of lovers. In the first, the problem is stated succinctly, though with a certain ambiguity:

The argumentative part of the poem begins at line 81:

All that we are told of Silvio and Fabio is that the former possesses "méritos" which, it is implied, are inferior to the latter's "perfecciones"; nor is there any suggestion that Fabio returns, or even recognizes, the speaker's love. The argument itself, though it occupies the remaining sixty lines of the poem, is clear enough. Silvio's fault is to have chosen to love the speaker: his kind of love costs him no sacrifice, and to return another person's love simply because one is loved would be a form of self-indulgence, a worshipping of one's own mirror image. In contrast to this, true love is fated, and may run contrary to mere "inclination":

The lines which begin "Ser potencia y ser objeto, / a toda razon se opone; …" support this view by an appeal to traditional logic: "To be a potentiality and at the same time the object of that potentiality would be contrary to reason, since it would be to exercise one's own operations on oneself. The object which it (i.e. the potentiality) knows is distinguished by its separateness—that is to say, by its status as an object; therefore the potentiality aims at that which is worthy to be loved, not at that which loves." And in the concluding lines, "correspondencia" is once more dismissed as alien to love's purpose:

A great deal of the effect of such a poem comes from the careful balancing of terms like "inclinación" and "destino", and from the ease with which logical commonplaces are torn from their normal context and worked into the natural flow of the verse. The same is true of 104, though here the intention is entirely theoretical, and there is no attempt to refer the argument to a specific situation. The opening statement of the theme immediately recalls the previous poem:

Yet already there is a difference: where the first poem recognized only a single form of love, the distinction is now between two kinds, neither of which is necessarily false. This distinction between irresistible love and "amor de elección" is amplified, more or less schematically, in the rest of the poem. The first is described as "amor afectivo"—passionate love. It is "más afectuoso", "más natural" and "más sensible"; it demands from the lover worship ("veneración") and "rendimiento de precisa obligación"; above all, it paralyses the will and is hostile to reason and the understanding. "Amor de eleccion", on the other hand, is rational and may extend to friendship and other natural bonds; in whatever form, it is based on the understanding, whence its superiority to the other kind: "digo que es más noble esencia / la del (amor) de conocimiento." As the title of the poem emphasizes, it is this second type of love which deserves to be reciprocated: "… amar por eleccion del arbitrio, es sólo digno de racional correspondencia".

Two qualifications need to be made if we are to grasp the full sense of the poem. In the first place, passionate love is described for the most part as a force which acts against the will of the lover, even though he may despise the object of his love. (The possibility that the lover may be helpless and at the same time consenting to his love does not arise.) In the last stanza, this is slightly modified:

This last-minute concession, however, scarcely weighs against the general tenor of the poem. The crucial thing is the rôle of the understanding, without which no love can be complete. In the second place, there is the tone which is used in judging the claims of irrational love, the dismissive wit which appears whenever the two kinds of love are contrasted:

Mas en mi ánimo altivo,
querer que estime el cuidado
de un corazón violentado,
es solicitar con veras
que agradezcan las galeras
la asistencia del forzado.

The ingenious play on the lover-galley slave metaphor could hardly be more pointed; an apparently casual stroke of humour is aimed at a whole tradition of amorous complaint with an economy quite beyond the possibilities of plain statement.

Each of these poems, then, speaks for an opposing view. They are, in fact, the two extremes of a whole series of poems which deal with the subject of "correspondencia", and which between them make up a fairly comprehensive range of possible attitudes. Comprehensive, but not, of course, coherent; this is the real point, and for some readers, one imagines, the stumbling-block. The question is, quite simply, how are we to take such poems? Are they merely examples of Sor Juana's skill in arguing both sides of a case, or is she arguing with herself in a more responsible sense, as part of a constantly shifting dialectic? Reading them as a whole, they may strike us rather as the poems for an unwritten pastoral novel; that is to say, in spite of their inconsistencies, they revolve around a limited number of central ideas which they debate from different, though related, points of view. Or, thinking of the artistic process behind the poems, one might put it another way: although their author is not necessarily committed permanently to a particular attitude, she has had at different times to imagine the circumstances in which any given one might be true. Sor Juana, of course, is not alone in this: the whole tradition of love poetry from the cancioneros onward shows similar inconsistencies which need only trouble us if we insist on relating them to direct personal experience, rather than to a developing literary convention. What Sor Juana's poems have in common is a rational framework of thought which rests on certain traditional polarities: reason-passion, as in the poems just discussed, and elsewhere soul-body and intuition-logic. These polarities are more often than not combined with more specific features of earlier love poetry, with concepts taken from Neoplatonism or the theory of courtly love, though here again it would be wrong to look for a complete exposition of any one set of ideas.

This brings us back to the original question. One need hardly insist on the dangers of devising simple equations between poems and "contemporary ideas". Where seventeenth-century poetry is concerned, this error can only be made worse by attempting to see a particular body of poems in terms of some basic unity of idea, so that any apparent exception has to be explained as a conscious retraction. As Professor Frank Kermode has said of Andrew Marvell [in The Selected Poetry of Andrew Marvell, 1967]: "(such poems) ask of the critic a respect for their relationship to traditions not invented by the poet, and not to be resolved in some generalization about his thought; his penetration and judgement must respect, in this sense, his singularity." In the case of Sor Juana, one could argue, the real unity of the poems comes from the sense of a strong personality which binds together a large number of heterogeneous elements—something in which the tone of the voice which speaks through the verse is at least as important as the biographical facts. This is hard to demonstrate in detail, though some such explanation is needed to account for the contrast between the almost line-by-line derivativeness of many of her poems and the extraordinary freshness of the whole. This is not to deny her lapses: many passages, and occasionally whole poems, strike one as overingenious or at times merely arid; her best verse succeeds, however, precisely because her imagination is able to find new patterns in traditional clusters of thought without accepting them schematically.

Allowing, then, for conflicting points of view, how comprehensive is the range of attitudes which Sor Juana presents? This is not the irrelevant question it might seem at first sight. The traditions on which she draws, though varied, are not unlimited, and it is quite possible to detect a preference for certain types of situation rather than others. It is noticeable, for example, that even in the poems which emphasize the idea of mutual love, there is little idea of what mutual love might be like. Here, one feels the pressure of that part of the courtly love tradition which equates love with suffering and postponement, or, occasionally, a suggestion of "platonic love" in the conventional meaning of the phrase. What one never finds is the sense of a relationship which, for better or for worse, involves the whole process of living. Significantly, the only social criterion which affects Sor Juana's poetry is "decorum": this is the principle which gives way in the face of passion, or, alternatively, to which one appeals as a means of evasion.

Nor is there much evidence of the characteristic Neoplatonic progression from sensual to spiritual love. Though the love of beauty is described in a number of poems, notably in those addressed to the Marquesa de la Laguna, there is no suggestion that this may lead to the contemplation of God, just as, at the other end of the scale, there is no indication that the woman's reflected beauty may be legitimately possessed. If this is so, the idea of a "scale" scarcely applies: what we have instead is a static situation which moves neither up nor down. Consider, for example, the poem which begins "Si el desamor o el enojo …". Here, the immediate occasion is annoyance ("enojo") at what appears to have been a sensual lapse. The speaker admits that her love is irresistible ("aunque no quise, te quise"), and for once this love is reciprocated. This balance, however, is threatened:

Anteros, traditionally, is the less harmful brother of Cupid; Méndez Plancarte equates him with "el amor puro ο dichoso en el sacrificio". The following stanza pursues this distinction between sensual passion and spiritual love:

Later, the two souls are imagined passing into eternity as an "unidad indivisible"; in this last part of the poem there is an obvious play on "unión" and "unidad": sexual union, as against the more permanent unity of souls. Yet this unity, however much it may transcend mere sexual attraction, remains a self-sufficient ideal: the "siempre amantes formas" are finally to achieve an openly pagan kind of immortality in which their happiness will be envied by the great lovers of antiquity.

Clearly, there is little in such a poem which could not be related, in one way or another, to earlier traditions. The condemnation of Cupid, for example, figures largely in Bembo and, by extension, in Gil Polo, whom Sor Juana had almost certainly read, and this is one of the things which set them apart from the more medieval notions of a Leon Hebreo. Yet in Bembo, this forms part of an attack on the whole idea of "fatal love" on which Sor Juana's poem is based. This is what one means when one speaks of "finding new patterns in traditional clusters of thought": as here, certain older, and originally inconsistent, ideas are fused into a new kind of unity, partly through the sheer conviction of the voice which presides over the poem. Moreover, as I have already argued, it is difficult not to see a consistency in the type of situation described. If the terms of this particular poem—the emphasis on love as a thing of the soul—lead it quickly away from the sphere of the senses, there are others which hardly rise to a spiritual level at all. These, on the whole, are the poems which speak of a love based on the acceptance of jealousy and suffering, the kind of love one associates with the older cancionero lyric. The title of one of these, "En que describe racionalmente los efectos irracionales del amor," introduces a long series of paradoxes which the reason is powerless to resolve. For the most part, these hinge on the contrast between irresistible desire and the fear of disillusionment. Yet one stanza seems to go beyond this:

"El" refers to the man with whom the speaker is in love: the lines express, with unusual directness, a shying-away from the intimacy of mutual feeling, a rejection of the final commitment which here, at least, has no justification in a superior form of love.

Such qualifications are not meant as a criticism of Sor Juana, but are simply an attempt to indicate the area in which her love poetry moves and, if possible, the kind of central situations on which it is based. One of these, as we have seen, is the notion of "correspondencia"; another, surely, is the tendency to think in terms of a spiritual love which does not appear to lead on to the love of God. This love is an "amor del entendimiento" which resides in the soul and which scorns the senses. Moreover, as is apparent from one of the poems already discussed, it can transcend differences of sex in a way which one is inclined to think characteristic of Sor Juana. As she says to the Marquesa de la Laguna:

Such statements are common in the poems addressed to friends, where there is no reason to suppose that she is acting a rôle. In poem 39 ("Señor Diego Valverde …"), she writes to a male acquaintance whose attractions are purely intellectual:

The difference between this and the language of certain love poems is very slight: if there is a "scale" in Sor Juana's love poems, it is not a "spiritual ladder" in the Neoplatonic sense, but one which runs through the varieties of "amor por elección", from spiritual love between the sexes to the natural demands of kinship. And at the back of all these possibilities is the idea of sexual neutrality which she expresses so strikingly in poem 48:("Señor, para responderos …"):

Here, certainly, it is safe to assume that Sor Juana is speaking from the standpoint of her religious vocation, though the attitude she is expressing seems almost a logical consequence of the conduct she envisages in several of the love poems. It would be tempting to draw the connection tighter, were it not for the existence of other poems which present emotional situations of some intensity. Significantly, the most serious of these relate either to absence or death, or, in the one notable exception, to the failure of the loved one to return the speaker's love. In poem 78 ("Agora que conmigo …"), the woman is lamenting the death of her "esposo": though she calls on love to overcome her reason, there is no attempt to convey the quality of the relationship on which it was based. Poem 76 ("Si acaso, Fabio mío …") is a different matter: in many ways this is the finest, and certainly the most moving, of Sor Juana's love poems, not merely because of the situation itself. This is exceptional enough (the woman who speaks is dying in the arms of her lover), yet the most striking thing is the complete absence of rhetoric and the effect of tenderness which this creates. This is not merely a question of restraint or the avoidance of sentimentality: the boldness of a metaphor like "De tu rostro en el mío / haz, amoroso, estampa" and a phrase like "Unidas de las manos / las bien tejidas palmas" are more physical than anything else in Sor Juana's poems. But what controls these details is the same voice which can contemplate death as an "eternal night" and, a moment later, can move wittily through a series of legal metaphors which issue with sudden appropriateness in the image of a pagan underworld:

It would be difficult to deny the sense of intimacy; yet one suspects that such a mood has been achieved precisely because of the imminence of death. At one point in the poem, the speaker says:

… dame el postrer abrazo
cuyas tiernas lazadas,
siendo unión de los cuerpos,
identiflcan almas.

This may recall one of the poems discussed earlier, in which the unity of souls was directly opposed to the idea of physical union. Here, there is no such opposition, but rather a telescoping of the two states, so that one is indistinguishable from the other. It would be wrong, of course, to expect complete consistency between the two poems; at the same time, the terms in which Sor Juana speaks of the love of the soul scarcely vary. In this particular poem, there is a sense in which the physical union, such as it is, achieves a dignity which it is not allowed elsewhere simply because of the unrepeatable nature of the situation, as if the urgency of the request guaranteed the merging of body and soul.

These invented situations lead one to reflect on the part played by the imagination in Sor Juana's work. This is not merely a question of invention, but also, in certain poems, a possible means of dominating the experiences which she presents. One cannot fail to notice, for instance, how many of her love poems are concerned with absence. A relatively trivial example of this occurs in the poem which begins "Aunque cegué de mirarte …" where the male speaker claims that the woman he loves, though physically absent, is present—and more powerfully so—to the "eyes of the soul". Though in this particular poem the idea is hardly more than a conventional hyperbole, it is the emphasis itself which strikes one: the notion that "gustos imaginados" are actually superior to those which are literally experienced. One sees the significance of this when one turns to a much finer poem, the sonnet which begins "Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo …". As Carlos Blanco Aguinaga explains in his excellent analysis of this poem [in MLN, 1962], its whole strategy consists in deceiving the expectations aroused in the opening quatrains. Just at the moment when it seems likely that the shadow of the elusive lover will finally escape her, the speaker quietly announces her victory:

Absence here has become crucial: it is no longer a temporary condition, as in the previous poem, though neither is it the total absence of death. Quite simply, it is a state which, because of the power of the imagination, has ceased to be a deprivation at all; the only state, moreover, in which the imagination is at liberty to exercise its powers to the full. It seems doubtful whether the attitude of this poem is as unique as Blanco Aguinaga suggests; there is, in fact a whole group of poems which tend in the same direction, though none of them achieves such a complete expression as this one. At this level, certainly, it hardly seems to matter whether the situation is invented or not: without exception, the men and women of Sor Juana's love poems are "shadows" evolved by the imagination. As Ramón Xirau has observed [in Genio y figura de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 1967]: "sucede como si Sor Juana quisiera alejar el objeto amoroso para mejor amasarlo; como si quisiera guardarlo en el recuerdo para mejor poseerlo en las imágenes de la memoria." Hence the importance, not only of absence, but of all the other devices and arguments by which her poems elude the tensions of a living relationship. In all the situations she presents, there are two ways of dominating experience, one intellectual, the other emotional, though the second is never entirely divorced from the first. As many critics have pointed out, her mind habitually works in terms of traditional dualities. Her intellect is such that it can argue for opposing points of view; it is emotionally, through her imagination, that she comes closest to achieving a synthesis of contraries, a precarious undertaking which can only succeed in the face of rational impossibility and which, when it fails, plunges straight into disillusionment.

One might end there, were it not that the subject of human love also occurs in Sor Juana's religious poems. In divine love, predictably, all contraries are resolved: "Que amor que se tiene en Dios / es calidad sin opuestos". In Sor Juana's presentation of divine love, therefore, there are none of the contradictory attitudes one finds in her poems on secular love. What problems there are come from a different source: roughly speaking, there are tensions involved in achieving divine love, and these come from the weaknesses of human nature, and particularly from the tendency of the attitudes of human love to in tervene. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, several of the religious poems contain contrasts, open or implied, with human love, and these are all the sharper for being expressed in a common terminology.

Once again, the key concept is "correspondencia", which not only appears in several of Sor Juana's religious poems, but is also vital to the argument of the Carta atenagórica, her famous reply to the Portuguese Jesuit, Padre Antonio Vieira. The latter, in his Sermão do Mandato of 1650, had argued that the greatest sign of Christ's love for humanity was neither the Eucharist nor his death on the Cross, but his willingness to absent himself from man while at the same time loving him more than his own life. Moreover, he went on to say, Christ had not wished his love to be returned for his own sake, but for that of man, and that consequently his greatest act of favour ("fineza") was to love without "correspondence". Sor Juana attacks both arguments: her own view, basically, is that the full extent of Christ's love for man is shown by his actual death, and that, in dying, "quiso mucha correspondencia, y no la renunció, sino que la solicitó". We do not need to follow the rest of her reasoning; in the present context, what is interesting is the confrontation between two kinds of relationship. As she says at one point: "el no querer correspondencia fuera fineza en un amor humano, porque fuera desinterés; pero en el de Cristo no lo fuera, porque no tiene interés ninguno en nuestra correspondencia … El amor humano halla en ser correspondido, algo que le faltara si no lo fuera, como el deleite, la utilidad, el aplauso, etc. Pero al de Cristo nada le falta aunque no le correspondamos … (Mi proposición) es que Cristo quiso la correspondencia para sí, pero la utilidad que resulta de esa correspondencia la quiso para los hombres": At this distance in time, the actual theological point may seem overingenious; remembering her poems, however, it is surely revealing that, where human love is concerned, Sor Juana allows for two opposing views and then goes on to argue that the love of Christ is unlike either.

In poem 56 ("Traigo conmigo un cuidado …"), she speaks of the difficulties of achieving disinterestedness in a divine context. On the face of it, she has rejected all kinds of human love—"amor bastardo, … de contrarios compuesto"—in favour of the one legitimate love, that of God. The problem arises when her spiritual desires become overlaid with human expectations; her suffering comes about because she wishes God to return her love, though she regards this as a human weakness. In one sense, of course, it is not: there is nothing in the least unorthodox about wishing to receive divine grace. However, as Méndez Plancarte points out, the kind of disinterestedness Sor Juana has in mind belongs to the tradition of "No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte …", though her own poem, by comparison, is lacking in conviction. Instead, there is division:

Méndez Plancarte slightly misinterprets these lines: the speaker's "dolor de amor" is not "el anhelo de la absoluta seguridad de su correspondencia", but her grief at not being able to rise above the desire for "correspondence". It would be a mistake to suppose that she were denying the existence of God's love for man: in view of the earlier lines in which human love is rejected, it seems that what she really fears is that the purity of her love for God will be harmed by an excessively human idea of "correspondence".

Despite the possible echoes of Santa Teresa, there is nothing especially "mystical" about this poem or the two which follow. In "Mientras la Gracia me excita … ", the suffering lies more vaguely in the conflict between reason and "la costumbre", though the final paradox—

—suggests that the suffering caused by guilt may not itself be guilty; that it may, in fact, be a source of good. Here, as in all Sor Juana's writings, divine love is equated with reason and virtue, never with less rational qualities; unreason, on the other hand, is part of the normal fabric of human life, just as it belongs to a certain kind of secular love. And in "Amante dulce del alma … ", the last of the group, the distance between the human and the divine is once more asserted through a variation on a familiar strategem.

Several of Sor Juana's poems on human love describe the effects of jealousy. In one of them, "Si es amor causa productiva … ", it is taken to be the one infallible sign of love: "Sólo los celos ignoran / fábricas de fingimientos… ". Conversely, Christ's love for man is disinterested, though in order to bring this home in her poem, she momentarily entertains the idea that it might be no more than jealousy. The speaker has just taken Communion: Christ has now "entered her heart", and she asks:

For a moment we are made to think of the human world, in which a man may examine a woman's appearance or conduct for signs of infidelity. But immediately she pulls herself up with a sense of shock: nothing, after all, is hidden from Christ—"¡ … como si el estorbo humano / obstara al Lince Divino!"—implying, perhaps, that jealousy exists precisely because human beings do not have the power of seeing into one another's souls. So she moves to her conclusion: since the circumstances for jealousy are lacking, Christ's presence in her heart must be a sign of love:

The poem not only confirms the unique nature of divine love by deliberately inviting human comparisons; it also presents the relationship between Christ and the believer in a way which seems characteristic of its author. At such moments, as Ramón Xirau has observed, "más que ver, Sor Juana siente que es vista". The contemplation of God, in the strict sense of the term, seldom enters her work, even as an ideal. What one finds instead, of course, is the constant humility of someone for whom divine favours are granted without regard to merit and for whom any thought of a more direct relationship with God would seem arrogant. And this may lead us to reflect once again on the love poems: if this is Sor Juana's view of her relations with God, is it surprising that her poems should avoid the idea that, through human love, one may rise to the contemplation of divinity?

One might be tempted to argue that there are inconsistencies in her religious poems as well. However, this would be to ignore the two traditional ways of approach to God, the negative and the affirmative, which are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. God, in Sor Juana's poems, may be present or absent, yet his absence is never final. As she says in the Carta atenagórica, "No ver lo que da gusto es dolor; pero mayor dolor es ver lo que da disgusto", a remark which has its implications for both human and divine love. In both cases, absence is a time for reflection as well as suffering and, where God is concerned, deprivation is only another stimulus to love.

In all Sor Juana's religious writing, there is one major theme: divine love is rational, consequently there can be no direct, intuitive knowledge of God. This is why, in her sacred poems, the idea of divine love is continually approached through comparisons with human love, which is partly known, though limited by various kinds of convention. In the end, the contradictions of the love poems seem to indicate—how consciously, one cannot say—that such partial knowledge is the most one can hope to achieve. What matters for Sor Juana is not so much knowledge as the search for knowledge, though this can best be seen in the one major poem which lies outside this study. As Octavio Paz has said: " Primero sueño no es el poema del conocimiento, sino del acto de conocer." Explicitly or implicitly, Sor Juana's treatment of love confirms this with a richness of attitudes that is often tested by the intellect, but which has little to do with intellectual certainties.

Octavio Paz (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," in The Siren & the Seashell, and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry, translated by Lysander Kemp and Margaret Sayers Peden, University of Texas Press, 1976, pp. 3-15.

[In the following essay, Paz explores the autobiographical aspects of Juana Inés de la Cruz's work and places her within the context of historical and political events of seventeenth-century Mexico.]

In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana Inés's criticism of the Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra's famous sermon, "Christ's Proofs of Love for Man." This Carta atenagórica [Letter worthy of Athena] is Sor Juana's only theological composition, or at least the only one that has survived.

Taken up at a friend's behest and written "with more repugnance than any other feeling, as much because it treats sacred things, for which I have reverent terror, as because it seems to wish to impugn, for which I have a natural aversion," the Carta had immediate repercussions. It was most unusual that a Mexican nun should dare to criticize, with as much rigor as intellectual boldness, the celebrated confessor of Christina of Sweden. But, if her criticism of Vieyra produced astonishment, her singular opinion on divine favors must have perturbed even those who admired her. Sor Juana maintained that the greatest beneficences of God are negative: "To reward is beneficence, to punish is beneficence, and to suspend beneficence is the greatest beneficence and not to perform good acts the greatest goodness." In a nun who loved poetry and science and was more preoccupied with learning than with her own salvation, this idea ran the risk of being judged as something more than theological subtlety: if the greatest divine favor were indifference, did this not too greatly enlarge the sphere of free will?

The bishop of Puebla, the nun's publisher and friend, did not conceal his disagreement. Under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz, he declared, in the missive that preceded the Carta atenagórica: "Although your discretion calls them blessings [the negative beneficences], I hold them to be punishments." Indeed, for the Christian there is no life outside of grace, and even liberty is a reflection of that grace. Moreover, the prelate did not content himself with demonstrating his lack of conformity with Sor Juana's theology but manifested a still more decided and cutting reprobation of her intellectual and literary affinities: "I do not intend that you change your nature by renouncing books, but that you better it by reading that of Jesus Christ … it is a pity that so great an understanding lower itself in such a way by unworthy notice of the Earth that it have not desire to penetrate what transpires in Heaven; and, since it be already lowered to the ground, that it not descend further, to consider what transpires in Hell." The bishop's letter brought Sor Juana face to face with the problem of her vocation and, more fundamentally, with her entire life. The theological discussion passed to a second plane.

Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz [Reply to Sister Filotea de la Cruz] was the last thing Sor Juana wrote. A critical autobiography, a defense of her right to learn, and a confession of the limits of all human learning, this text announced her final submission. Two years later she sold her books and abandoned herself to the powers of silence. Ripe for death, she did not escape the epidemic of 1695.

I fear that it may not be possible to understand what her work and her life tell us unless first we understand the meaning of this renunciation of the word. To hear what the cessation of her voice says to us is more than a baroque formula for comprehension. For, if silence is "a negative thing," not speaking is not: the characteristic function of silence is not at all the same thing as having nothing to say. Silence is inexpressible, the sonorous expression of nothingness; not speaking is significant: even in regard to "those things one cannot say, it is needful to say at least that they cannot be said, so that it may be understood that not speaking is not ignorance of what to say, but rather is being unable to express the many things that are to be said." What is it that the last years of Sor Juana keep silent from us? And does what they keep silent belong to the realm of silence, that is, of the inexpressible, or to that of not speaking, which speaks through allusions and signs?

Sor Juana's crisis coincided with the upheaval and the public calamities that darkened the end of the seventeenth century in Mexico. It does not seem reasonable to believe that the first was an effect of the second. This kind of linear explanation necessitates another. The chain of cause and effect is endless. Furthermore, one cannot use history to explain culture as if it were a matter of different orders: one the world of facts, the other that of works. Facts are inseparable from works. Man moves in a world of works. Culture is history. And one may add that what is peculiar to history is culture and that there is no history except that of culture: the history of men's works and the history of men in their works. Thus, Sor Juana's silence and the tumultuous events of 1692 are closely related facts and are unintelligible except within the history of colonial culture. Both are consequences of a historical crisis little studied until now.

In the temporal sphere New Spain had been founded as the harmonious and hierarchical coexistence of many races and nations under the shadow of the Austrian monarchy; in the spiritual sphere, upon the universality of the Christian revelation. The superiority of the Spanish monarchy to the Aztec state was somewhat similar to that of the new religion: both constituted an open order capable of including all men and all races. The temporal order was just, moreover, because it was based upon the Christian revelation, upon the divine and rational word. Renouncing the rational word—keeping silent—and burning the Court of Justice, a symbol of the state, were acts of similar significance. In these acts New Spain expressed itself as negation. But this negation was not made against an external power: through these acts the colony negated itself and renounced its own existence, but no affirmation was born out of this negation. The poet fell silent, the intellectual abdicated, the people rebelled. The crisis led to silence. All doors were closed and colonial history was revealed as an adventure without an exit.

The meaning of the colonial crisis may be misunderstood if one yields to the temptation of considering it as a prophecy of independence. This would be true if independence were solely the extreme consequence of the dissolution of the Spanish Empire. But it was something more and also something substantially different: it was a revolution, that is, the exchange of the colonial order for another. Or say it was a complete beginning again of America's history. In spite of what many think, the colonial world did not give birth to an independent Mexico: there was a rupture and, following that, an order founded on principles and institutions radically different from the old ones. That is why the nineteenth century has seemed remote from its colonial past. No one recognized himself as being in the tradition of New Spain because, in fact, the liberals who brought about independence were of a different tradition. For more than a century, Mexico has lived without a past.

If the crisis that closed the period of the Austrian monarchy did not prophesy independence, then what was its meaning? Compared to the plurality of nations and tongues that comprised the pre-Hispanic world, New Spain presented a Unitarian structure: all peoples and all men had a place in that universal order. In Sor Juana's villancicos ("Christmas carols") a heterogeneous multitude confesses a single faith and a single loyalty, in Nahuatl, Latin, and Spanish. Colonial Catholicism was as universal as the monarchy, and all the old gods and ancient mythologies, scarcely disguised, could be accommodated in its heavens. Abandoned by their divinities, the Indians, through baptism, renewed their ties with the divine and once again found their place in this world and in the other. The uprooting effect of the Conquest was resolved into the discovery of an ultraterrestrial home. But Catholicism arrived in Mexico as a religion already formed and on the defensive. Few have pointed out that the apogee of the Catholic religion in America coincided with its European twilight: sunset there was dawn among us. The new reli gion was a centuries-old religion with a subtle and com plex philosophy that left no door open to the ardors of investigation or the doubts of speculation. This difference in historical rhythm—the root of the crisis—is also perceivable in other orbits, from the economic to the literary. In all orders the situation was similar: there was nothing to invent, nothing to add, nothing to propose. Scarcely born, New Spain was an opulent flower condemned to a premature and static maturity. Sor Juana embodies this maturity. Her poetry is an excellent showcase of sixteenthand seventeenth-century styles. Assuredly, at times—as in her imitation of Jacinto Polo de Medina—she is superior to her model, but she discovered no new worlds. The same is true of her theater, and the greatest praise one can offer of El divino Narciso [The divine Narcissus] is that it is not unworthy of the Calderonian sacramental plays. (Only in Primero sueño [First dream], for reasons that will be examined later, does she surpass her masters.) In short, Sor Juana never transcended the style of her epoch. It was not possible for her to break those forms that imprisoned her so subtly and within which she moved with such elegance: to destroy them would have been to repudiate her own being. The conflict was insoluble because her only escape would have demanded the destruction of the very foundations of the colonial world.

As it was not possible to deny the principles on which that society rested without repudiating oneself, it was also impossible to propose others. Neither the tradition nor the history of New Spain could propose alternative solutions. It is true that two centuries later other principles were adopted, but one must remember that they came from outside, from France and the United States, and would form a different society. At the end of the seventeenth century the colonial world lost any possibility of renewing itself: the same principles that had engendered it were now choking it.

Denying this world and affirming another were acts that could not have the same significance for Sor Juana that they had for the great spirits of the Counter Reformation or the evangelists of New Spain. For Saints Theresa and Ignatius, renunciation of this world did not signify resignation or silence, but a change of destiny: history, and human action with it, opened to the other world and thus acquired new fecundity. The mystic life did not consist so much of quitting this world as of introducing personal life into sacred history. Militant Catholicism, evangelical or reformist, impregnated history with meaning, and the negation of the world was translated finally into an affirmation of historical action. In contrast, the truly personal portion of Sor Juana's work does not touch upon either action or contemplation, but upon knowledge—a knowledge that questions this world but does not judge it. This new kind of knowledge was impossible within the tenets of her historical universe. For more than twenty years Sor Juana adhered to her purpose. And she did not yield until all doors were definitely closed. Within herself the conflict was radical: knowledge is dream. When history awakened her from her dream, at the end of her life, she ceased to speak. Her awakening closed the golden dream of the viceroyship. If we do not understand her silence, we can not comprehend what Primero sueño and Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz really mean: knowledge is impossible, and all utterance flows into silence. In understanding her silence one

deciphers glories amid
characters of devastation.

Ambiguous glories. Everything in her—vocation, soul, body—was ambivalent. While she was still a child her family sent her to live in Mexico City with relatives. At sixteen she was lady-in-waiting to the Marquesa de Mancera, vicereine of New Spain. Through the biography by Father P. Diego Calleja we are able to hear the echoes of the celebrations and competitions in which the young prodigy Juana shone. Beautiful and alone, she was not without suitors. But she chose not to be the "white wall upon which all would throw mud." She took the habit, because, "considering my totally negative attitude toward matrimony, it seemed the most fitting and most decent thing I could choose." We know now that she was an illegitimate child. Had she been legitimate, would she have chosen married life? This possibility is dubious. When Sor Juana speaks of her intellectual vocation she seems sincere: neither the absence of worldly love nor the urgency of divine love led her to the cloister. The convent was an expedient, a reasonable solution, offering refuge and solitude. The cell was an asylum, not a hermit's cave. Laboratory, library, salon, there she received visitors and conversed with them; poems were read, discussions held, and good music heard. She participated from the convent in both intellectual and courtly life. She was constantly writing poetry. She wrote plays, Christmas carols, prologues, treatises on music, and reflections on morality. Between the viceregal palace and the convent flowed a constant exchange of rhymes and civilities, compliments, satirical poems, and petitions. Indulged child, the tenth Muse.

"The tender phrases of the Mexican language" appear in her villancicos along with black Congolese and the unpolished speech of the Basque. With complete awareness, and even a certain coquetry, Sor Juana employs all those rare spices:

What magic infusions
known to the Indian herbsmen
of my country spread their enchantment
among my writings?

We would be in error if we confused the baroque aesthetic—which opened doors to the exoticism of the New World—with a preoccupation with nationalism. Actually one might say precisely the opposite. This predilection for languages and native dialects—in imitation of Luis de Góngora—does not so much reveal a hypothetical divination of future nationalism as a lively consciousness of the universality of the empire: Indians, Creoles, mulattoes, and Spaniards form one whole. Her preoccupation with pre-Columbian religions—apparent in the prologue to El divino Narciso—has similar meaning. The functions of the church were no different from those of the empire: to conciliate antagonisms and to embrace all differences in one superior truth.

Love is one of the constant themes in her poetry. Scholars say that she loved and was loved. She herself tells us this in various lyrics and sonnets—although in Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz she warns us that everything she wrote, except for Primero sueño, was commissioned. It is of little importance whether these were her loves or another's, whether they were experienced or imagined: by the grace of her poetry she made them her own. Her eroticism is intellectual; by that I do not mean that it is lacking in either profundity or authenticity. Like all great lovers, Sor Juana delights in the dialectic of passion; also, for she is sensual, in its rhetoric, which is not the same as the rhetorical passions of some female poets. The men and women in her poems are images, shadows "fashioned by fantasy." Her Platonism is not exempt from ardor. She feels her body is like a sexless flame:

And I know that my body
never inclining to one or the other
is neuter, or abstract, everything
the soul alone safekeeps.

The question is a burning one. Thus she leaves it "so that others may air it," since one should not attempt subtleties about things that are best ignored. No less ambiguous is her attitude toward the two sexes. The men of her sonnets and lyrics are fleeting shadows exemplifying absence and disdain. However, her portraits of women are splendid, especially those of the vicereines who protected her, the Marquesa de Mancera and the Condesa de Paredes. Sor Juana's poem that "paints the beautiful proportions of the Lady Paredes" is one of the memorable works of Gongoristic poetry. This passion should not scandalize:

To be a woman and to be absent
is no impediment to loving you,
for souls, as you know,
ignore distance and gender.

The same rationale appears in almost all her amorous poetry—and also in the poems that treat the friendship she professes for Phyllis or Lysis: "Pure love, without desire for indecencies, can feel what profanest love feels." It would be excessive to speak of homosexuality; it is not excessive to observe that she herself does not hide the ambiguity of her feelings. In one of her most profound sonnets she repeats:

Though you may thwart the tight bond
that enclasped your fantastic form,
it is little use to evade arms and breast
if my fantasy builds you a prison.

Her loves, real or imagined, were without doubt chaste. She loved the body with her soul, but who can trace the boundaries between one and the other? For us, body and soul are one, or almost so: our idea of the body is colored by the spirit, and vice versa. Sor Juana lived in a world based on dualism, and for her the problem was easier to resolve, as much in the sphere of ideas as in that of conduct. When the Marquesa de Mancera died, she asked:

Beauteous compound, in Laura divided,
immortal soul, glorious spirit,
why leave a body so beautiful,
and why bid farewell to such a soul?

Sor Juana moved among shadows: those of untouchable bodies and fleeting souls. For her, only divine love was both concrete and ideal. But Sor Juana is not a mystic poet, and in her religious poems divinity is an abstraction. God is Idea and Concept, and even where she visibly follows the mystics she resists mixing the earthly and the heavenly. Divine love is rational love.

These were not her great love. From the time of her childhood she was inclined toward learning. As an adolescent she conceived the project of dressing as a man and attending the university. Resigned to being self-taught, she complained: "How hard it is to study those soulless marks on the page, lacking the living voice of the master." And she added that all these labors "were suffered for the love of learning; oh, had it only been for the love of God—which were proper—how worth-while it would have been!" This lament is a confession: the knowledge she seeks is not in sacred books. If theology is the "queen of the sciences," she lingers on her outer skirts: physics and logic, rhetoric and law. But her curiosity is not that of the specialist; she aspires to the integration of individual truths and insists upon the unity of learning. Variety does not harm general understanding; rather, it exacts it; all sciences are related: "It is the chain the ancients imagined issuing from the mouth of Jupiter, from which all things were suspended, linked one with another."

Her interest in science is impressive. In the lines of Primero sueño she describes, with a pedantry that makes us smile, the alimentary functions, the phenomenon of sleep and fantasy, the curative value of certain poisons, the Egyptian pyramids, and the magic lantern that

reproduces, feigned
on the white wall, various figures,
helped no less by the shadows
than by light in tremulous reflections …

Everything blends together: theology, science, baroque rhetoric, and true astonishment before the universe. Her attitude is rare in the Hispanic tradition. For the great Spaniards learning resolved into either heroic action or negation of the world (positive negation, to state it differently). For Sor Juana the world is a problem. For her, everything stimulates questions; her whole being is one excited question. The universe is a vast labyrinth within which the soul can find no unraveling thread, "shifting sands making it impossible for those attempting to follow a course." Nothing is further removed from this rational puzzle than the image of the world left us by the Spanish classics. There, science and action are blended. To learn is to act, and all action, like all learning, is related to the world beyond. Within this tradition disinterested learning is blasphemy or madness.

The church did not judge Sor Juana mad or blasphemous, but it did lament her deviation. In Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz she tells us that "they mortified and tormented me by saying, These studies are not in conformance with saintly ignorance, she will be lost, she will faint away at such heights in her own perspicacity and acuity." Double solitude: that of the conscience and that of being a woman. A superior—"very saintly and very candid, who believed that study was a matter for the Inquisition"—ordered her not to study. Her confessor tightened the ring and for two years denied her spiritual assistance. It was difficult to resist so much opposing pressure, as before it had been difficult not to be disoriented by the adulation of the court. Sor Juana persisted. Using the texts of the church fathers as support, she defended her right—and that of all women—to knowledge. And not only to learning, but also to teaching: "What is unseemly in an elderly woman's having as her charge the education of young ladies?"

Versatile, attracted by a thousand things at once, she defended herself by studying, and, studying, she retreated. If her superiors took away her books, she still had her mind, that consumed more matter in a quarter of an hour than books in four years. Not even in sleep was she liberated "from this continuous movement of my imagination; rather it is wont to work more freely, less encumbered, in my sleep … arguing and making verses that would fill a very large catalogue." This is one of her most beautiful confessions and one that gives us the key to her major poem: dreaming is a longer and more lucid wakefulness. Dreaming is knowing. In addition to diurnal learning arises another, necessarily rebellious form of learning, beyond the law and subject to a punishment that stimulates the spirit more than it terrorizes it. I need not emphasize here how the concept that governs Primero sueño coincides with some of modern poetry's preoccupations.

We owe the best and clearest description of the subject matter of Primero sueño to Father Calleja's biography: "It being nighttime, I slept. I dreamed that once and for all I desired to understand all the things that comprise the universe: I could not, not even as they are divided into categories, not even an individual one. The dawn came and, disillusioned, I awoke." Sor Juana declared that she wrote the poem as a deliberate imitation of Soledades [Solitudes]. But Primero sueño is a poem about nocturnal astonishment, while Góngora's poem is about daytime. There is nothing behind the images of the Cordovan poet because his world is pure image, a splendor of appearances. Sor Juana's universe—barren of color, abounding in shadows, abysses, and sudden clear ings—is a labyrinth of symbols, a rational delirium. Primero sueño is a poem about knowledge. This distinguishes it from Gongoristic poetry and, more finally, from all baroque poetry. This very quality binds it, unexpectedly, to German Romantic poetry and through that to the poetry of our own time.

In some passages the baroque verse resists the unusual exercise of transcribing concepts and abstract formulas into images. The language becomes abrupt and pedantic. In other lines, the best and most intense, expression becomes dizzying in its lucidity. Sor Juana creates an abstract and hallucinatory landscape formed of cones, obelisks, pyramids, geometric precipices, and aggressive peaks. Her world partakes of mechanics and of myth. The sphere and the triangle rule its empty sky. Poetry of science, but also of nocturnal terror. The poem begins when night reigns over the world. Everything sleeps, overcome by dreams. The king and the thief sleep, the lovers and the solitary. The body lies delivered unto itself. Diminished life of the body, disproportionate life of the spirit, freed from its corporeal weight. Nourishment, transformed into heat, engenders sensations that fantasy converts into images. On the heights of her mental pyramid—formed by all the powers of the spirit, memory and imagination, judgment and fantasy—the soul contemplates the phantasms of the world and, especially, those figures of the mind, "the clear intellectual stars" of her interior sky. In them the soul re-creates itself in itself. Later, the soul dissociates itself from this contemplation and spreads its gaze over all creation; the world's diversity dazzles it and finally blinds it. An intellectual eagle, the soul hurls itself from the precipice "into the neutrality of a sea of astonishment." The fall does not annihilate it. Incapable of flight, it climbs. Painfully, step by step, it ascends the pyramid. Since method must repair the "defect of being unable to know all of creation in an intuitive act," it divides the world into categories, grades of knowledge. Primero sueño describes the progress of thought, a spiral that ascends from the inanimate toward man and his symbol, the triangle, a figure in which animal and divine converge. Man is the site of creation's rendezvous, life's highest point of tension, always between two abysses: "lofty lowliness … at the mercy of amorous union." But method does not remedy the limitations of the spirit. Understanding cannot discern the ties that unite the inanimate to the animate, vegetable to animal, animal to man. Nor is it even feasible to penetrate the most simple phenomenon: the individual is as irreducible as the species. Darkly it realizes that the immense variety of creation is resolved in one law but that that law is ineffable. The soul vacillates. Perhaps it would be better to retreat. Examples of other defeats rise up as a warning to the imprudent. The warning becomes a challenge; the spirit becomes inflamed as it sees that others did not hesitate to "make their names eternal in their ruin." The poem is peopled with Promethean images; the act of knowing, not knowledge itself, is the battle prize. The fallen soul affirms itself and, making cajolery of its terror, hastens to elect new courses. In that instant the fasting body reclaims its own dominion. The sun bursts forth. Images dissolve. Knowledge is a dream. But the sun's victory is partial and cyclical. It triumphs in half the world; in the other half it is vanquished. Rebellious night, "recovered by reason of its fall," erects its empire in the territories the sun forsakes. There, other souls dream Sor Juana's dream. The universe the poem reveals to us is ambivalent: wakefulness is dream; the night's defeat, its victory. The dream of knowledge also means: knowledge is dream. Each affirmation carries within it its own negation.

Sor Juana's night is not the carnal night of lovers. Neither is it the night of the mystics. It is an intellectual night, lofty and fixed like an immense eye, a night firmly constructed above the void, rigorous geometry, taciturn obelisk, all of it fixed tension directed toward the heavens. This vertical impulse is the only thing that recalls other nights of Spanish mysticism. But the mystics seem to be attracted to heaven by lines of celestial forces, as one sees in certain of El Greco's paintings. In Primero sueño the heavens are closed; the heights are hostile to flight. Silence confronting man: the desire for knowledge is illicit and the soul that dreams of knowledge is rebellious. Nocturnal solitude of the consciousness. Drought, vertigo, palpitation. But, nevertheless, all is not adversity. In his solitude and his fall from the heights man affirms himself in himself: to know is to dream, but that dream is everything we know of ourselves, and in that dream resides our greatness. It is a game of mirrors in which the soul loses each time it wins and wins each time it loses, and the poem's emotion springs from the awareness of this ambiguity. Sor Juana's cyclical and vertiginous night suddenly reveals its fixed center: Primero sueño is a poem not of knowledge but of the act of knowing. And thus Sor Juana transmutes her historical and personal ill fortunes, makes victory of her defeat, song of her silence. Once again poetry is nourished by history and biography. Once again it transcends them.

Frederick Luciani (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Burlesque Sonnets of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 85-95.

[In the following essay, Luciani places Juans Inés de la Cruz's burlesque sonnets within the context of the courtly love tradition.]

In his controversial psychoanalytic study of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Ludwig Pfandl offers her five burlesque sonnets as proof that the Mexican nun suffered from a chronic mental disorder, because of which she sometimes slipped into an abnormal and indecent deficiency of sensibility and taste. Says Pfandl [in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, la décima musa de México: Su vida, Su poesia, Su psique, translated by Juan Autonio Ortega y Medina, 1963]:

Por último podemos también aqui mencionar esos cinco malos sonetos que los biógrafos de nuestra monja no saben precisamente como justificar y declarar inofensivos y tampoco saben cómo ponerlos en consonancia con el elevado estado intelectual de la Décima Musa…. Nosotros … consideramos que los cinco malcriados incubos son productos de la Juana ya madura y monacal, pues sabemos cómo renovaba y resbalaba reiteradamente hacia un anormal estado de sensibilidad.

Pfandl's observations neatly summarize the general critical posture with regard to the burlesque sonnets: they have long been both a source of perplexity for critics and an object of direct or indirect censure. Their rather frivolous, discordant rhymes have not been to everyone's taste, and their presentation of a picaresque sort of love (unrefined, even bawdy), along with the occasional indelicate word or reference, have struck a number of modern critics as incongruous and inappropriate, especially considering Sor Juana's sex and religious calling.

A quick description of the form and content of the burlesque sonnets will help to explain why, as Pfandl correctly noted, critics have been hard-pressed to explain their presence within Sor Juana's oeuvre. All five are written in forced consonantal rhyme, and use farcical, sometimes coarse, language to describe aspects of love among the lower classes. The characteristic rhymed consonant of the first sonnet, "Inès, cuando te riñen por bellaca …," is /c/; the person addressed, perhaps by her suitor, is Inés, who is scolded for her loquacity in terms which do not exclude the scatologic. The second sonnet, "Aunque eres, Teresilla, tan muchacha …," has a characteristic ch in its rhyme scheme, and deals with the deceitful Teresilla and her cuckolded husband Camacho. The only peculiarities in rhyme of the third sonnet, "Inés, y con tu amor me refocilo …," are the use of the prefix re in the rhymed words of the first quatrain and the first tercet, and the final o of all the lines. In this poem, an Inés is again addressed, this time by a suitor who describes his reactions to her fickle, and sometimes violent, moods. The consonant f is characteristic of the rhyme scheme in the fourth sonnet, "Vaya con Dios, Beatriz, el ser estafa …," in which a Beatriz receives the complaints of her rufo, who accuses her of being deceitful and unfaithful. In the last sonnet, "Aunque presumes, Nise, que soy tosco …," the characteristic rhyme is -sco. In this poem, a Nise is assured by the man in her life that he is not deceived by the traps she sets for him.

Where critics have gone wrong is to divorce these sonnets from the literary context which makes them intelligible: the courtly love tradition, in both its serious and burlesque forms. When examining this tradition, a convenient place to start is with Guillaume IX of Aquitaine, generally acknowledged as the first troubadour, at least the first whose works are extant. Guillaume's lyric manifests many of the refined notions of courtly love whose echoes are heard in the Baroque age of Sor Juana, yet in his songs on con, for example, Guillaume treats the most earthy aspects of physical love in a broad and bawdy fashion. But the presence of the exalted and the base is not schizophrenic in Guillaume, any more than it is in Rabelais or Quevedo, or for that matter, Sor Juana. Rather, high and low treatments of love coexist as parallel and connecting modes, in constant dialogue with each other. Refined courtly love depends upon its burlesque counterpart; its elegant attitudes need to be somehow grounded in baser reality so as not to become empty posturing. Similarly, burlesque views of love depend on their refined counterpart for their humor and surprise; only as thematic and linguistic deformations of an ideal are they ingenious, and therefore amusing.

This element of dialogue, a dialogue of texts, of voices and attitudes, to which the attentive reader is sensitive, is important in Sor Juana as well. Her burlesque sonnets do indeed stand in contrast to her sublime amorous lyric, a contrast whose intention is to surprise and delight. Pfandl is of course correct when he suggests that these poems cannot be put "in consonance" with Sor Juana's more elevated moments; his mistake is to view the dissonance of the burlesque sonnets in ethical and psychological terms rather than in terms of an evolving tradition.

The third sonnet is a good example of how burlesque love poems can best be appreciated as a deformation of the ideal courtly love lyric. It reads:

The sonnet is essentially a lover's lament, but this lover is not a courtier, and the object of his affections is no lady. As in serious courtly love poetry, the beloved enjoys a superior position relative to her suitor, who rejoices in any sign of affection or attention on her part. And as in courtly love connection, the beauty of the lady, which the lover contemplates with delight, is the source of love. The beginning of the poem, then, presents a perfectly traditional situation: the lover rejoices in his lady's beauty and attentions. But the serious tone of this beginning is undermined by the discordant forced consonants of the quatrain; the last word of each line, the key verb which expresses the lover's emotions, begins with the prefix re-, a prefix which suggests repetition and intensification. Each of these verbs is also reflexive, preceded by the pronoun me. The repetition of these verbs ("me refocilo," "me regodeo," "me recreo") vulgarizes the essential message, suggesting emotions that are more self-indulgent than courteous.

The lover goes on to treat the theme of jealousy; he is devastated when his beloved looks at another, and trembles when she herself is jealous. The lover's trembling recalls that of the ideal courtly lover, who manifests symptoms of love illness (hereos). However, this lover trembles, not because of his extreme humility, not because his worship of the lady leads him to fear her slightest sign of displeasure, but rather, as it turns out, because of her habit of walloping her man when provoked. The ideal courtier's heroes, caused by the alteration of humors in his lady's presence, is thus parodied by the lower-class lover, the rufián, whose nervous trembling is a result of the fear of physical violence: "tu con un voleo / no dejarás humor ni aun para quilo"

The first tercet of the sonnet returns to the use of words beginning with re-, and each line recalls a traditional courtly love theme. In the first line, the lover notes how he does not dare to breathe when Inés is angry. This corresponds to both a symptom of hereos (the "impedido aliento" found elsewhere in Sor Juana's verse) and the theme of the silent adorer, the fenhedor of courtly love lyric. But here Sor Juana's lexical choice, the verb resollar, colors the concept with a more vulgar shade of meaning: it recalls the noisy respiration of animals as well as the familiar meaning of "breathing a word," speaking up. The next line echoes the courtly theme of the refining effect of love; the lover's courteous service is a source of virtue, a process of self-improvement through the exercise of humility, devotion, and self-discipline. But this lover's service is of a more prosaic nature; it is Inés' henpecking that keeps him in line. The last line recalls the courtly theme of the wakeful lover, Petrarch for example, whose lonely bed is his duro campo di battaglia. But in Sor Juana's sonnet, the lover's sleeplessness is not a result of unrequited passion; it is a more practical kind of vigilance, directed towards Inès' activities outside the house.

The sonnet ends with an expression of hope or expectation; this corresponds to the courtly lover's role of precador, or beseecher. But the guerdón that this lover anticipates is ambiguous: He expects that Inès' love will land him in bed or out on the street. If bed is his fate, he will either have won the object of his heart's desire, or else he will be convalescing. If the street is his fate, he will either have been dismissed by his disdainful lady, or else he will have joined her in some mutually profitable enterprise.

The fifth burlesque sonnet by Sor Juana also constitutes a humorous deformation of courtly love commonplaces. It reads:

As with so many poems in the courtly love mode, this sonnet hinges upon the antithetical contrast of images and metaphors of heat and cold, light and darkness. But the lover who speaks in this poem uses these antitheses to systematically deny similarity between himself and the traditional courtier.

The first quatrain constitutes a reworking of one of the oldest and most common metaphors of courtly love verse: the lover as a moth attracted to the flame. The standard metaphor is well suited to the commonplaces of courtly love sentiment: just as the moth flits about the flame, unable to approach and unable to depart, so is the courtly lover trapped in a perpetual state of longing, of frustrated desire, of "have-and-have-not"; the moth's attraction is ultimately fatal, just as the lover's passion is self-destructive. Poets traditionally noted the madness of the moth in its attraction to flame (in the words of the troubadour Floquet de Marseille, "parpaillos qu'a tant folia natura"), as well as its artless, ingenuous nature (Petrarch's "semplicetta far alla," Herrera's "simple mariposa"), and its literal and figurative blindness (in Góngora's words, "Mariposa, no sólo no cobarde, mas temeraria, fatalmente ciega").

In Sor Juana's sonnet, all of these commonplaces are alluded to, but with a difference: the lover who speaks denies the relevance of the traditional metaphor; his is not the classic situation. He is not stupid ("tosco") despite what Nise may think. He is not blinded with passion, but rather, exceedingly clear of eye: he sees Nise for what she is without seeking her "light": "tu luz no busco," "tus engaños reconozco." In short, he is no butterfly, and no dreamy courtly lover; his love is lucid and self-interested, and he is not be its victim.

The second quatrain continues to contrast images of light and darkness. The lover, however deeply involved he may be with Nise, and even entangled in her deceitful plots, denies being confused ("ofuscado"); his skin color may be dark ("fusco") but his disposition is even darker ("más hosco"). These lines recall many of Petrarch's which contrast the lover's dark and depressed state with Laura's bright and serene nature: "Che'l nostro stato è inquieto a fosco, / Si come'l suo pacifico e sereno." But such sentiments are corrupted in Sor Juana's sonnet; the lover who speaks is not only dark of disposition, but also of skin color. He is probably a mulatto or mestizo, that is to say, of the lower classes. Thus, a kind of racial joke is used to parody the traditional courtly lover's spiritual darkness and despair.

In the tercets, the contrast of light and darkness gives way to the contrast of heat and cold, in antithetical image that recall qenerations of European love lyric. But here again, the classic situation is reversed: the lover is cool and collected, not burning with passion. He is the one whose heart is cold, who offers his snowy disdain to the lady. The poem ends on a defiant note: the lover knows what he is about, and is not to be trifled with.

This affirmation of control over the amorous relationship on the part of the suitor is a direct negation of courtly lover sentiment, and of the traditional roles of courtly lovers. Nise is warned not to play the cruel mistress, for her man is not the courtier of love lyric, and has no intention of being dominated. He is clever, self-possessed, keen of visions; even his skin color is a denial of resemblance to the poetic ideal. This denial of resemblance is carried out in the poem on the rhetorical level: standard comparisons are employed, but vulgarized or trivialized so as to stand the conventions of love lyric on their ear. The difference is obvious if one juxtaposes Petrarch's "stato fusco" with the "color fusco" of the lover in Sor Juana's sonnet, or if on one compares the standard expression of amorous disorientation, the "camino errado" of so many courtly love poets, with this lover's colorful and impudent expression of self-assurance: "yo sé muy bien lo que me pesco."

As the preceding analysis has suggested, it is the final word of each line which gives the five burlesque sonnets their farcical tone. Aside from the peculiar consonantal rhymes which they possess, these words are unique in their general semantic, morphological, and acoustic properties. Among them one finds examples of onomatopoeia (triquitraque, chasco), of germanía and colloquialisms (mequetrefe, cuca, and so on), of popular variants of words (ducho, rather than docto), and of poliptoton (ofusco, fusco, hosco). In addition, the first sonnet includes one common scatological word (caca), and the fourth sonnet concludes with a line that mimics the laughter of which the rufián will be the object ("afa, ufo, afe, ofe …") and ends by naming the characteristic consonant of the sonnet, efe. In short, these final words are deliberately and self-consciously anti-poetic, if by "poetic" we mean mellifluous, idealized, euphemistic, and erudite. They are the direct antithesis of "poetic" language, just as the plebeian lovers who are referred to are, in their actions and emotions, the antithesis of the prototypical lovers of courtly tradition.

Antipoetic too, by traditional standards, is the consonantal rhyme of these sonnets, the insistent repetition of sound which is percussive but not musical. The result is a kind of vertical alliteration, read or heard downward from line to line, not the linear, mimetic alliteration of traditional verse. This alliteration is used in a playful, nonfunctional way; the forced consonants are, to borrow Severo Sarduy's words [in América Latina en su literatura, edited by César Fernández Moreno, 1972], a "divertimiento fonético," an intratextual operation which invites an unorthodox, nonlinear reading, and which, like the anagram and so many other "curiosities of Baroque verse," is ultimately self-referential. If there is a correspondence, a harmony of sound and sense in these poems, then it is a cacophonous harmony; the acoustic discord of the final words reminds the reader of the general nature of the sonnets: their deliberate corruption of courtly love ideology, their lexical deviation from conventional poetic language, in short, their carefully contrived dissonance with regard to traditional amorous lyric.

The burlesque sonnets, then, can be regarded as poems of contrived dissonance. The reader can attune his ear to the acoustic and intertextual dissonances of the poems, but what about the elements of contrivance? How can one explain the sonnets' systematic rhetorical and thematic upending of the courtly love tradition? They are obviously meant as humorous pieces; one must assume that their buffoonish humor was more engaging in the seventeenth century than in our own. And certainly the ingeniousness of the metrical tricks performed must have appealed to the Baroque Age's love of wit. Yet even allowing for differences in taste and humor between Sor Juana's century and our own, one cannot help but sense a certain ponderous quality in these sonnets; without judging them ethically or censuring them aesthetically, one can still recognize that they are something of a vulgar stunt. When read within a literary tradition, and especially when juxtaposed with serious treatments of courtly love, they are more then comical and clever: they are somewhat aggressive, even subversive. The trivaility of the situations presented does not change the fact that these sonnets turn back on the tradition in a critical way; this is cumbersome parody, but with a pointed tip.

Sor Juana's burlesque sonnets refer constantly to a poetic tradition, and ultimately, to themselves. This circular referentiality makes determining the fundamental sense and purpose of these poems a difficult task. But the task can be made practicable by stepping briefly outside the circle, by looking to another writer and another text as points of comparison. The humorously parodic nature of the burlesque sonnets, their metaliterary consciousness, their constant reference to an established literary genre, are all reminiscent of similar tendencies in the Quixote. Cervantes and Sor Juana share, among other things, a keen awareness of the permutations that can be realized by the writer who works with topoi that are over-familiar, time-worn. The Quixote offers a wealth of comparative possibilities, but one episode in particular, that of Don Quixote's penitence in the Sierra Morena, can serve as a vir tual simulacrum for the feats performed by Sor Juana in the burlesque sonnets.

As the reader of the Quixote will remember, in part I of the novel the hero sends his squire on a mission: Sancho must ride to Dulcinea and communicate his master's love to her. During Sancho's absence, Don Quixote proposes to imitate the mad fury of Orlando and Amadis, two of his principal models in knight-errantry. The purpose of Don Quixote's imitation will be to prove his love for Dulcinea, to give, in his words, "testimonio y señal de la pena que mi asendereado corazón padece." To this end, it is necessary that Sancho be his medium; he must observe some of Don Quixote's actions before leaving and report them to Dulcinea: "Por lo menos, quiero, Sancho … que me veas en cueros, y hacer una o dos docenas de locuras, … porque habiéndolas tú visto por tus propios ojos, puedas jurar a tu salvo en las demás que quisieres añadir …".'

Sancho immediately begins to suspect what Don Quixote never does, namely that such actions will not make sense out of their conventional context. He notes that, while the chivalric heroes had sufficient cause to lose their sanity, Don Quixote's "madness" will be unprovoked. His mas ter's answer is too pragmatic, too well reasoned, and is a reminder of the totally contrived nature of his enterprise: '"Ahi está el punto …, y ésa es la fineza de mi negocio; que volverse loco un caballero andante con causa, ni grado ni gracias: el toque esta en desatinar sin ocasión y dar a entender a mi dama que si en seco hago esto, ¿qué hiciera en mojado?'" Don Quixote's purpose is too obviously rhetorical; he hopes to physically enact the figures and topoi of amorous convention in order to convince Dulcinea that he indeed is in love. As most often is the case in the novel, Don Quixote's real madness lies in his inability to recognize what Cervantes makes refreshingly clear to the reader: that literary conventions make sense only on a literary plane, that they cannot be translated into action without becoming absurd.

Sancho, again, realizes that his amo is embarked upon an enterprise doomed to failure. When Don Quixote mentions that he proposes to smash his head against the rocks as part of his amorous derangement, Sancho advises: "Por amor de Dios …, que mire vuestra merced cómo se da esas calabazadas: que a tal peña podrá llegar, y en tal punto, que con la primera se acabase la máquina desta penitencia. Y seria yo de parecer que … se contentase … con dárselas en el agua, O en alguna cosa blanda, como algodón." Sancho's...

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Further Reading


Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana or, the Traps of Faith, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1988, 547 p.

Definitive biographical and critical study.


Barnstone, Willis. "Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz." In Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet, pp. 59-85. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Provides a biographical and critical study of Cruz and her work.

Dixon, Paul B. "Balances, Pyramids, Crowns, and the Geometry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz." Hispania...

(The entire section is 424 words.)