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Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz presents very different sentiments in "Respuesta a Sor Filotea," (a defense to a letter of criticism sent from a bishop who had been thought of as a friend) as opposed to her sonnets, some of which deal with love. The letter of response includes her history, her desire to learn, and her dedication not to offend the Holy Church. She is collected, poised and businesslike, employing intellectual arguments and humble statements.
In "Respuesta a Sor Filotea," Sor Juana reports on why learning is so important to her:
I do not study in order to write, nor far less in order to teach (which would be boundless arrogance in me), but simply to see; whether by studying I may become less ignorant. This is my answer, and these are my feelings.
Sor Juana has no desire to teach—she sees this as arrogance on her part, to assume that she knew enough to imagine she could teach others. On the contrary, her feeling, constantly, of never having learned enough makes her feel ignorant...uneducated. She studies to become less ignorant.
However, her love sonnets are much more emotional, speaking not always of love, but sometimes of hate. Her tone is more aggressive, much less conciliatory: very emotionally honest.
In her sonnet entitled, "Reason Prevails Over Pleasure," she speaks of two men: one who mistreats her that she adores, and the other who pursues her, and she ignores. The one who wants her does not appeal, but the more "diamond-hard" the other is toward her, the more "he gets all my attention." By the end of the poem, Sor Juana's blatant honesty is surprisingly timeless:
The one I don't want I'll use well, / And drop the unloving scoundrel.
This sentiment sounds like something out of a soap opera or novel, and not very nun-like.
Another powerful sonnet Sor Juana titles, "Abhorrence," and I include the entire poem, for its power comes from the poem's entirety.
Sylvio, I hate you and still attack,
Abhorring your sting in this fashion:
As the sharp sword goads the scorpion;
Stepping in mud leaves a muddy track.
Like venom stored in a deadly sack
That wounds if employed without caution;
Virtue was never your intention,
You gloat in its obvious lack.
Your vile face persists in my memory,
With frightening visions of passion,
Provoking the pain of my destiny.
Thus I must face this contradiction:
Abhorring not only you but me,
For all the times I wanted you back.
Sor Juana directs her comments to Sylvio. The first thing she tells him is that she hates him, and she goes on to speak of attacking—it would seem one of them attacking and the other answering in kind.
The imagery is wonderful: the sharp sword vs. the scorpion, and, "venom stored in a deadly sack." Sor Juana's claws are showing.
She throws in his face: "Virtue was never your intention." In essence, she calls him a schemer and a liar, and he gloats about it. Memories of his "vile" face and "frightening visions of passion" bring her pain, but...and this is the poem's pivotal point...she must face the contradiction life has presented: if she hates him, then she must also hate herself for all the times that, knowing what he was, she still wanted him back.
What amazing poetry from a Mexican nun in the late 1600s. Sor Juana's letter of response is like a business letter, reporting essential details. Her sonnets include condemnation of self and others, and painful honesty about her humanity. And we see how people, even nuns, can be many-sided creatures.
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