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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

First Dream , Sor Juana’s longest and most ambitious poem, takes the form of a dream retold after waking in the morning. It focuses on a matter of great importance to her: the human desire to know and understand the world. The text demonstrates Sor Juana’s own extensive scholarship. It...

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First Dream, Sor Juana’s longest and most ambitious poem, takes the form of a dream retold after waking in the morning. It focuses on a matter of great importance to her: the human desire to know and understand the world. The text demonstrates Sor Juana’s own extensive scholarship. It also showcases her poetic skill with images. Central to this work are the numerous images associated with sleep that are woven into her account: night contrasted with day, the dominion of sleep over human beings, sleep as a type of death, the deception of dreams. Sor Juana herself attached great personal significance to this work, and she makes special mention of it in her famous letter, The Poet’s Answer to the Most Illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz.

In the opening lines, the shadow of night reaches toward the stars, but its “frowning gloom” surrounds only the earth. Night is not able to put out the light of the stars, “splendid lights, forever free, aglow forever.” Sor Juana calls the shadow “pyramidal,” and her interest in pyramids is explored later in a more intellectual fashion as she discusses Homer’s ideas regarding pyramids. The shape reflects the ambition of the mind, mounting upward and attempting ambitiously to grasp the essence of life and the First Cause of creation. Throughout her text, Sor Juana makes use of rhetorical figures to illustrate the action of the searching intelligence. Other parallel images refer to daring flight, including the failed flight of Icarus, whose wings, held on with wax, melted when he flew too close to the sun.

The poem explores the effects of night and darkness, commanding every living creature to sleep. First the animals, then people, fall under the spell. Morpheus, an image of death, is all-powerful—ruler and peasant alike must give in and rest. As the soul frees itself of the body, it begins to contemplate Creation. Scientific references to the four humors and the workings of the body give way to intellectual flight, with references to Atlas, Olympus, and the pyramids of Egypt.

The soul then enters the upper sphere and tries to grasp the immense complexity of creation, but the sheer numbers of creatures and elements in the universe overwhelm the mind. Sor Juana then explores the mental processes of scholastic doctrine, taking up one thing at a time and dividing things into categories. She introduces representative features of the total system but finds her mind frustrated. Debating whether it is wise to try again, the soul is caught by the rising sun. Night gives way, in images of a military retreat. Human senses take over again, and the sleeper, identified as Sor Juana herself, awakes.

Although the ideas are deeply philosophical, the poem derives much of its beauty and subtlety of meaning through references to mythology and the scientific ideas of Sor Juana’s time. The verses describing the night and nature’s slow yielding to sleep are particularly beautiful. She uses the silva, with eleven-syllable and seven-syllable lines that occasionally rhyme but are often free in order and may not rhyme. Once the world has gone to sleep, Sor Juana’s soul explores the nature of human intellect. Since the life of the mind was so central to her identity, it is not surprising that this work had a special place in Sor Juana’s affections.

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