Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111206536-Cruz.jpg Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Sor Juana is an outstanding poet of Mexico’s colonial period. She is recognized as a key figure in Latin American literature and has the stature of an important Spanish poet of the seventeenth century.

Early Life

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born in San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico, a small village in the foothills of the Popocatépetl volcano, probably in November, 1648. The traditional date of her birth, based on a biography by the Jesuit Diego Calleja, was November 12, 1651, but scholars have found a baptismal record for her parish for a female child dated December 2, 1648, which is believed to be hers. She is recorded as a “daughter of the Church,” since her parents, Isabel Ramírez de Santillana and Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, were not officially married.

Juana Inés was one of six children, all illegitimate. Her father seems to have left when Juana Inés was very young, and she scarcely mentions him. After Captain Diego Ruiz Lozano entered the household, Juana Inés was sent to the house of her maternal grandfather, where she was reared and where she had access to a library. She learned to read at the age of three, and at the age of eight she composed a dramatic poem ( loa) to the Eucharist. Eager to learn, she mastered Latin in about twenty lessons.

When she was sixteen, Juana Inés went to the viceroy’s court as a lady of the viceroy’s wife, the Marquesa de Mancera. She very soon became a favorite of the marquesa, and the two apparently shared a love of learning and of the intellectual life. At one point, the viceroy invited a group of about forty professors to question Juana Inés on her knowledge, and she astounded everyone with her answers. At this age, Juana was also a strikingly beautiful young woman.

A life at court did not provide a young woman in Juana Inés’ circumstances with an opportunity for marriage, and she herself refers to a “total disinclination to marriage.” Considering the options available to her, especially with her desire to continue studying, she chose, in 1667, to enter the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites. The order was too severe for her, however, and she became ill and left after three months. A year later, she entered the Order of Saint Jerome, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Life’s Work

When Juana Inés took the veil in the Convent of Saint Jerome (San Jerónimo) on February 24, 1669, and officially became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, she was not yet twenty-one. She was from then on bound to the regulations and activities of the convent, which were not especially strict, but the communal life did provide interruptions which sometimes took her away from her studies. Nevertheless, she read broadly to fill in the many gaps in her education—she was essentially self-taught—and she also wrote extensively. From 1669 to 1690, she built up a considerable library collection for her use.

Sor Juana refers to her frail health on several occasions, and she was seriously ill with typhoid fever in 1671 or 1672. As a result, she wrote about the experience of death in a sonnet dedicated to “Laura” and a romance (a poem in octosyllabic verse with alternate lines of assonance) addressed to Fray Payo Enríquez de Rivera. Even her early writings show a sure skill in using the styles and forms of her times, and her own intelligence and sensitivity for nuances of meaning are evident.

Throughout her life, Sor Juana wrote many poems, but it is impossible to date them accurately since the originals have been lost and her style did not evolve. From the beginning, she showed a control of chiaroscuro and a sense of form and proportion. As is true of other works of the Baroque period, Sor Juana’s poems are not personal revelations but rather a demonstration of talent in using correct form. Within a given form, individual talent emerges through ingenious use of well-known comparisons and images, or in the particular emphasis or tone.

In 1680, the Marqués de la Laguna was appointed viceroy, and the period of his reign, 1680-1688, was a very rich period in Sor Juana’s intellectual life. She even heralded his arrival with a symbolic work entitled El Neptuno alegórico (1680; allegorical Neptune). Completely in tune with Baroque tradition, Sor Juana skillfully draws an allegorical portrait of the new viceroy using the device of an emblem or enigma. “Primero sueño” (first dream) begins with a poetic rendering of a slumbering world through mythology and imagery but develops into a philosophical argument on the relation...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)