Written in 1692 by Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana—better known as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—the late seventeenth-century poem “First Dream” meditates on the nature of life and the world. The poem follows the speaker’s soul on a dream-state journey, relaying its desperate search for unattainable answers in narrative form. The speaker’s journey is a philosophical effort that parallels Sor Juana’s own, for the author spent much of her life in scholarly pursuits in an attempt to satisfy her intense desire for knowledge and clarity.
Note: This study guide refers to Alan S. Trueblood’s English translation of the poem.
The poem begins with the description of a one-sided conflict. The shadow of night strains upward, seeking the resplendent freedom of heaven that glows brightly above. Yet, despite its vengeful efforts, the shadow cannot even surpass the “fair goddess’ orb,” the moon. Jilted, it maintains bitter hegemony over the earth, permitting no noise but the muffled sounds of birds.
The speaker names the avian creatures responsible for the “fearsome jangling choir” that permeates the night, beginning with Nyctimene, a girl from Lesbos transformed into an owl by Minerva as punishment for incest. She introduces the Minyades—three sisters who preferred their looms to the worship of Bacchus and were turned into bats for their defiance—into the echoing birdsong. Ascalaphus (a “one-time henchman” who informed Pluto of Persephone’s consumption of seven pomegranate seeds and was transformed into a screech owl for his transgression) joins the “torpid, lazy measure.” Together, these mythical birds harmonize, singing in a languid, “phlegmatic beat” that lulls even the wind to sleep. Their “dull and drawn-out harmony” extends across the darkened landscape, and their cries soothe the creatures of land and sea and aid Night as she “enjoin[s] silence on all things living.” Even Halcyon, an “enchantress and deceiver” transformed into a kingfisher, must obey.
The setting shifts, turning to remote mountains that now house the slumbering “legions of wild animals” who have fallen prey to Night’s command. So powerful is her call that even the lion, the “king of beasts,” can only feign wakefulness, though the “timid hart” Acteon twitches his ears anxiously, aware of the subtle sounds in the darkness. The eagle, “Jupiter’s majestic bird,” maintains a posture of practiced vigilance, standing balanced on one foot, a pebble held in the other. Only this “dutiful king” defies the call, held perpetually accountable by his “unending obligation” and responsibility.
As the darkness deepens, even man must succumb to Night’s demands. Sleep, that “likeness of life’s opponent,” is a great unifier, granting both “shepherd’s crook and lofty scepter” a brief respite from the day’s labors and pleasures. The body, warmed by “vegetal heat” paid out to “listless limbs and resting bones,” slips into the measured, clocklike rhythms of living death. The rhythmic beating of the heart and lungs offers incontrovertible proof of life, though the silent senses and stilled tongue mutely argue otherwise. Though no “forge of Vulcan,” the stomach supplies heat to the limbs and humors to the mind. Digestion triggers recall, storing the day’s “diligent memory” while also conceiving of “things invisible.” The mind presents these self-constructed images of memory and fantasy to the soul in the form of dreams.
Removed from the limiting confines of her physical form, the speaker imagines her soul soaring to a mountain so tall that it dwarfs both Atlas and Olympus. This summit, even broken into three parts, is so immense that no eagle’s “rapid surging flight” could hope to reach even the “first level of its elevation.” She then compares the mountain to the...
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“two Pyramids” of Memphis, Egypt. These monumental forms—the “ultimate refinement of architecture”—are, as the speaker claims, described in Homer’s poetry. Not merely architectural triumphs, Homer calls the pyramidal form an “outward manifestation” of the “human spirit’s attitude” as it travels upward, flame-like, to ascend to “the center,” where God, the “First Cause” dwells. To this comparison, the speaker adds the Tower of Babylon; together, these three marvels of man are mere shadows compared to the “elevated pyramid of mind” her soul has attained.
The speaker’s comfortable “perch” is short-lived—gazing out “over all creation,” the “immense assemblage” overwhelms her. Unable to comprehend the vastness before her, she can no longer maintain this unfathomably high summit of mind. She is blinded; it is as if she has glared into the sun itself. Like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, she is humbled and driven to tears. The world and its menagerie of “species” “blunt” her “intellective faculty” and make perfect understanding impossible. She raises a hand to her eyes, and the shade softens the sun’s startling beam, but the damage has been done. Her foolish flight has reduced her “reasoning power” and diminished it to that of a “rudimentary embryo.” Eventually, the “ship of the soul” runs aground on the shores of the “sea of knowing.” “Prudent rumination” conjures a new method for her soul to achieve the heights of knowledge she desires: Aristotelian categories. The acquisition of knowledge is a gradual process, and the benefits of the “doctrine” of disciplined learning—which “fortifies Mind’s weaknesses” and energizes the soul’s ascent up the “lofty stair” to the once unattainable summit—soon become clear.
The speaker begins with “the inanimate” mineral realm, least favored by Nature, before advancing her studies to the nobler hierarchy of plant life. From the vegetal realm, the soul turns to the animal kingdom, then translates this well-studied “compendium of lower forms” into a singular “supreme” creature. This creature may “stretch proud arms to heaven” but must suffer mortality; it is of flawed magnificence, just as the clay-footed statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Naming this creature “Man,” she explains that humanity is an amalgam of all three forms of being, composed of “angel, plant, and beast alike” and forged of both the terrestrial and the divine in an “unacknowledged” but “loving union.”
Though her soul has learned much, the speaker still expresses doubt. Speaking of a stream and its inexplicable self-direction, she worries about her potential inability to comprehend even “the very smallest, the easiest part” of the world around her. If, as she claims, even one such object or species defies unity and cohesion, “understanding turns her back.” Nature, that complex system, demands perfect knowledge; however, the task of “investigating Nature” without divine guidance would overburden even mythological heroes such as Hercules and Atlas. In this moment of uncertainty, she takes inspiration from the ill-fated Phaethon, who died while pursuing his impassioned need for knowledge. The speaker finds a “thrust of new ambition” and no longer quails before the threat of the “nether pantheon” or the “vengeful lightning bolt.” She rejects cowardice in order to embrace daring, choosing to seek knowledge without fear.
Answers remain elusive as the darkness begins to abate; the mind slowly stirs, and the body completes its nightly cycle of digestion and dreaming. “Without their owner’s full assent,” the limbs begin to move unconsciously. Senses return and eyes flicker; the process of awakening has begun. “The father of flaming light” embarks from the east, and Aurora, the goddess of dawn and “standard-bearer of the Sun,” faces armor-clad Night. The final stanza completes the cycle of night and dreaming; the sun arrives to cast impartial light upon all below, and Night, the “dismal despot of his realm,” flees to the west. As this ritual conflict comes to a close, the light of the sun restores the sounds and senses of the day, and the speaker awakens.