First Dream

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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What are the images of light and dark in Sor Juana's First Dream?

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Sor Juana's poem First Dream is an unprecedented achievement for a woman from the seventeenth century, exploring the realm of dreams and the search of the soul for a knowledge which is otherwise inaccessible and which, even in her dream, will remain unresolved. She was a gifted child, self-taught and highly regarded among the learned men of the viceregal court in "New Spain" (Mexico), where she had been a lady in waiting. She became a nun to allow her to devote her time to studying and, mainly, because she did not want to be beholden to any man. The Church felt differently about her talents than the viceregal court did and criticized her defiant, disrespectful nature and behavior and, to avoid official censure, she officially had to stop writing.

Sor Juana was very aware that physical attributes, particularly for women, were an obstacle rather than a blessing and, in her poetry, she explores the potential to connect with nature and the environment. In First Dream, the reader recognizes her indelible spirit as she knows that "the surrounding gloom" is limited to the earth and its physical restrictions. The soul, as it begins its journey, is not interested in earthly concerns, particularly gender, as it is neither male nor female. Therefore, there is already a light which enters the soul and night flows from the earth to the heavens, not the other way around. 

Interestingly, "splendid lights, forever free, aglow forever" cannot be extinguished and this alludes to her own struggles and the connection between the philosophical and the concrete as the soul becomes the focus. Aligning the two worlds cannot be achieved realistically but the dream attempts to remove any real boundaries which stem from expectations and beliefs. The dark shadows cast by the "pyramidal" shapes are dimensional and reveal the propensity for misunderstanding and misinterpretation but also the ability to look beyond the real into the surreal realms of dreams. The soul searches, in quite zealous terms, for that remote and strived-for knowledge which, on earth, cannot be realized.   

Fundamental to her poem is the contrast between waking and sleeping and the different types of dark and light images which result. Her style reflects a complicated Spanish, Baroque style due to the contrasts and especially the light and dark analogies. Sor Juana admitted that this poem was written for pleasure and therefore any obscure meanings would increase that pleasure for her, even though it may complicate it for the reader.  

As the world sleeps, the soul journeys through the stars. To reveal how complex the night is and how day and night are taken for granted but are actually a unique phenomenon creating light or darkness and explaining natural occurrences, there is a "shadowy war"  between the "gaseous blackness" and "the convex side" of the “fair goddess’ orb" - the moon. Light and dark can complement each other but they are also opposites of each other, as Sor Juana points out. 

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