Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, a celebrated Mexican nun, was the greatest literary figure in the colonial New World, not only because of her lyrical ability but also because of her delightful personality. In the early seventeenth century there were few women in Hispanic America who could even sign their names, but with the developing culture, more and more girls received a sort of education in schools called “Amigas.” However, it was only a primary education. The University of Mexico, founded in 1551, was only for boys. Girls were not believed to have any need or desire for extensive learning.
This was not true, however, of Juana Inés de Ashbaje y Ramirez de Santillana, born in San Miguel de Nepantla, Mexico, in 1651. To keep her out of mischief, her mother sent her with an older sister to one of the Amigas. There the three-year-old unblushingly told the teacher that her mother wanted her taught how to read. The teacher, at first as a joke, then amazed at Juana’s quickness, taught her to read before her mother learned of the deception.
A craving for knowledge followed Juana throughout life. A few years later, having heard that cheese, of which she was very fond, stupefied the brain, the girl stopped eating it. When she thought she was not learning grammar as rapidly as she should, she cut back her hair, vowing not to let it grow long till she conquered the subject, “since a head so naked of knowledge ought not to be adorned with pretty hair.” Hearing about the university for men at the capital, she importuned her mother to let her disguise herself in men’s clothes and attend classes. At the age of eight, when she finally went to Mexico City to live with her grandparents, she learned Latin in order to read all the books in their library.
Turning suddenly to the religious life, she entered the convent of Santa Teresa la Antigua at the age of sixteen, but the rigorous discipline of the order proved too strict for her frail health and she was released. In 1669 she entered the convent of San Jeronimo. She remained a member till her death.
She early discovered her versifying ability and practiced it for formal and informal occasions. The latter part of the seventeenth century in America was the Baroque Period, with poetry and even prose full of distorted syntax, Latinisms, mythological and classical allusions, and an abundance of metaphors and ridiculous conceits. This Gongorism was the result of imitation of the Spanish poet Luis de Gongora y Argote.
Because of her wide reading, Sor Juana was bound to imitate the prevailing literary fashion when she began to write. Before long, however, she found other models. Critics find the influence of the great lyric poet Garcilaso de la Vega, who wrote in the Italian style with love as his chief theme. Though limited in number, his verses achieved perfection. His thirty-eight harmonious sonnets, in which emotion mingles with beauty, established that form in Spanish verse. At times Sor Juana also followed Lupercio and Bartolome Argensola, brothers who were among the most classic of poets.
Sor Juana experimented with every type of verse: sonnets, lyrics, ballads, redondillas of four line stanzas and a specific rhyme scheme, villancicos or rustic Christmas carols,...
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