Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sor Juana, a Mexican nun in the Roman Catholic Order of Saint Jerome, has her eyes on God and the spiritual realm, and she wants to give moral instruction to her readers. Although God and a judgment day are never mentioned in the poem, the poet tries to warn her readers that the world of the flesh is transitory; the most beautiful body is merely a corpse dressed in flimsy clothing. She remembers and recalls for the reader the biblical statement that humankind is dust and shall return to dust.

In many poems of the seventeenth century, especially in Elizabethan England, poets addressed this same theme, but they often found a way to escape death’s power: Love helped the memory of someone to endure, or art ensured the immortality of the person who was honored in a poem or painting. As Shakespeare said, “As long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this [the poem] and this gives life to thee.” Sor Juana offers no such hope. In fact, the world of art is simply a realm of deception and trickery, a place for syllogistic reasoning. The only truth lies outside the human sphere. In other poems, she makes direct reference to the spiritual realm, but here it is only inferred.

Many critics have pointed out the debt Sor Juana owed to Luis de Góngora y Argote’s poem “Mientras por competir con tu cabello” (“While in competition with your hair”), which was written in 1582, more than one hundred years before her poem. There are...

(The entire section is 460 words.)