Analysis

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Last Updated on July 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, a seventeenth-century Mexican author writing during the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, lived a life of contradiction. Born of mixed Spanish and Mexican ancestry and raised on a wealthy Spanish hacienda, her perspective was at once colonial and colonized. Women were unable to access basic education, so the young writer was forced to teach herself, learning to read using stolen books. As a young adult, she joined a convent, rejecting the domestic lifestyle expected of her in order to better pursue her studies. She was an early feminist writer, and her work was critical of patriarchal standards and church doctrine that limited women’s self-expression. “First Dream” does not explicitly touch on these themes, though when read in context with the author’s personal history, the speaker’s unyielding pursuit of knowledge takes on a subtle feminist cast. The poem reflects Sor Juana’s own divisions; the search for meaning is both a spiritual task and an intellectual one, building a conversation between her experiences as a nun and as a lifelong student.

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Though she spent her entire life in Mexico, Sor Juana’s work was heavily influenced by Spanish literary culture. Featuring religious themes described through allusions to classical antiquity, “First Dream” embraces a Renaissance tradition that adapted Greco-Roman culture for the modern reader. The structure of the poem is a nod to Spanish traditions as well; the poem is a silva, a contemporarily popular loose verse style common in Spain and composed of seven- or eleven-syllable lines formatted in no particular order. It is often rhymed, usually irregularly, though Alan S. Trueblood’s English translation of “First Dream” does not employ any such rhyme scheme. The poem is written from an omniscient first-person point of view. The speaker acts as a lens to describe the winding narrative path of her dream and only occasionally inserts her own voice (as in phrases such as  “I mean…” and “I speak of…”) in order to add emphasis or imply particular importance. Unfolding cyclically, the poem’s structure uses the comfortable rhythm of familiar patterns—nightfall, sleep, daybreak, wakefulness—as the backdrop for existential musings, reliant on the dream state and its abstract conjurations to detail the nature of knowledge.

Sleep—a mundane biological process in which the events of the day are archived through dreams—takes on a grander form. When “loosed from the bodily chain,” it melds memory with the fantastic and unreal. The poem’s heavily stylized, fanciful narrative features are rooted in contemporary scientific knowledge, sourcing artistic and theological meaning from the biological realities, such as the “vital spirits” and “four well-tempered humors” that govern the body’s function. Science and art, though traditionally opposed, form the poem’s narrative backbone and highlight the poem’s reliance on antithesis. Contrasting images of darkness and light, day and night, and slumber and wakefulness build both mood and setting. In this space of contrast, Sor Juana pursues philosophical disconnects, such as between man and nature, the body and the soul, and the active and passive pursuits of knowledge. The poem’s narrative progression is a function of this juxtaposition, discussing these sites of comparison as they intersect over the course of the speaker’s dream.

Alliteration—the repetition of certain sounds—is interspersed frequently throughout the poem’s English translation, though it figures most prominently in the first stanza, as in phrases such as “towering tips,” “scaling stars,” and, later, “baleful birds.” Often, these alliterated phrases are positioned at the end of an enjambed line, adding a soft musicality and lyrical quality that furthers the poem’s dreamlike, mystical tone. Too, the poem relies heavily on allusions that reference shared cultural context to clarify the imaginary scenes of the speaker’s dream.

The first stanza establishes the combative nature of Night, a “dreadful moving shade” who rages fruitlessly toward heaven. Already, readers sense the eerie power they face, a sentiment reinforced as the following stanza’s call upon classical mythological figures such as “shamefaced Nyctimene,” the “three sisters” of Thebes, and “Pluto’s telltale one-time henchman,” Ascalaphus. Transformed from humans as punishment for actions offensive to the gods, the “droning” tempo of their “dismal intermittent dirge” punctuates the darkness and imbues Night’s ominous air with a lingering sense of divine dissatisfaction. Similarly, the speaker describes the ever-alert eagle as “Jupiter’s bird”; overlooking the slumbering animals, the speaker sees not just what is before her but what each image represents. The connection between mundane objects and mythical meaning not only reinforces the fantastic tone of the poem but also addresses the poem’s thematic throughline. The eagle is at once a bird and a myth, a dualistic awareness that speaks to man’s unyielding attempt to understand and explain the world.

Allusions are a tool for mood-building, but they are also a tool that, as seen in Sor Juana’s discussion of the eagle, comment on the poem’s pursuit of knowledge. Frequently, allusions are interjected as hyperbolic means to explain the speaker’s struggle to find the answers she so desires. Seeking such answers without divine guidance is a task so burdensome that it “would make even the shoulders of Atlas sag” and “outdo the strength of Hercules.” These giants of classical antiquity are common allusions that conjure images of incredible physical prowess and immense determination; this hyperbolic comparison is intended to indicate the difficulty of pursuing and attaining such heights of worldliness and understanding. Exaggerated and hyperbolic allusions lend both fantasy and difficulty to the poem, aiding the speaker as she transitions away from environmental and biological descriptions to the philosophical and spiritual transformations happening within.

Drawing on Aristotelian logic, Homeric literary traditions, and famous architectural marvels, the poem utilizes historical elements to ground the dream’s abstract images in reality. When she is humbled by her unceremonious descent from the divine summit, these philosophical tactics, literary histories, and physical realities become an intellectual means for the speaker to reorient herself and begin again. Aristotle’s “artfully constructed categories” create a logical structure for her search, and comparisons to “the two Pyramids” build points of reference that make the speaker’s subjective dream state not only legible but comprehensible.

Such devices—allusion, hyperbole, and antithesis—add stakes to the poem’s mundane setting and make simple sites of shared experience such as sleep and dreaming meaningful. The poem unfolds in familiar settings made fantastic. Juxtaposing the procedural awareness of the processes that power the body with the speaker’s struggle to understand man in a spiritual sense, Sor Juana indicates the limits of human understanding; beyond the bare mechanics of biological function, little else can be fully known. The poem ends as the speaker awakens. Though her search for perfect insight remains unfulfilled, the poem has completed its cycle—the day has returned, and the nighttime insights of the soul fade in the dawning light.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

“First Dream” (it has also been translated as “Primero Sueño,” its original title) is a long narrative poem about knowledge and the act of knowing. It is written in the classical style known as the dream poem. The poem is actually the narrative of a dream, in which fantastical images are described as if from within the subconscious. The device of the dream allows the poet certain license with controversial ideas, because dreams are not expected to be “correct.”

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico, her writing is influenced by Spanish literary conventions. “First Dream” is, according to Sor Juana herself, the only thing she ever wrote for her own pleasure. “First Dream” consists of 975 lines. It has been translated into roughly thirty-five irregular stanzas. As the title suggests, the poem is the “first dream” of the narrator, who falls asleep and has a dream in which the “soul” is the main character. The soul then explores the nature of knowledge from its lofty position above the world.

Presumably this is the first of many dreams to come in the life of the poet. Although it was composed during the colonial period in Mexican literature, it was first published in Spain. Sor Juana lived in the New World in an age when knowledge was expanding, and the source and purpose of knowledge were readily debated among theologians and intellectuals. In this “dream,” Sor Juana tries to reconcile the world of the theologian (she was a nun) with the world of the intellectual (she was also an intellectual); she tries to reconcile the concept of faith with its supposed contrary, knowledge.

The main irony of the poem is expressed in a metaphor. The overly confident “ship of the soul” suffers on the beach of knowledge but has no choice but to advance further. Thus, the soul cannot possibly understand the cosmos and all of nature, but it nevertheless feels compelled to examine the hierarchy of being.

Most of “First Dream” is written in the omniscient first person, as if the “objective” narrator were recalling a powerful dream that was full of allusions to diverse classical myths and mythic heroes. The narrator occasionally reminds the reader of her presence by inserting “I say” or “I mean.” Halfway through the poem, the narrator addresses the reader directly because what she declares is of the utmost thematic importance: “In short, I speak of man, the greatest wonder/ the human mind can ponder.”

It is conventional for meditative and highly intellectual poetry to make use of the metaphor of the dream. The dreaming state is an altered state of consciousness with which every one is familiar. Sor Juana believes that she is free to dream only when the mind is “loosed/ from the bodily chain” in sleep. She likens the sleeping body to “a corpse with soul”; it is the soul that propels the dreaming state. The body inevitably wakens, however, and the soul cannot complete its task. If there is a weakness in the poem’s logic, it is in the relation between the soul and the mind, a relation which is not clear.

When the mind is “loosed,” says the poet, it wants to understand nature; yet, in spite of its worthiness, the mind is hampered by its own limitations, its inability to comprehend all, or to comprehend at different levels simultaneously. The mind must proceed “step by step” through “a graduated form of reasoning.”

Sor Juana then details what she perceives to be four discerning “operations.” These operations begin with the “basest level of being—the inanimate” and ascend to the most animate—human beings. Human beings are “the greatest wonder/ the human mind can ponder.” They constitute a “complete compendium/ resembling angel, plant, and beast alike,” and this is what makes them extraordinary.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

“First Dream” begins with an inscription: “So entitled and so composed by Mother Juana Inés de la Cruz, in imitation of Góngora.” The reader gets two messages in this brief inscription. First, Sor Juana (Sor meaning “Sister”) is a nun (she joined the order of Saint Jerome in 1669). Second, Sor Juana knows something about Spanish literature. She considers one of the great euphuistic poets of Spain, Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627), worthy of imitating in some aspect of her own work. Like Góngora, she employs an affected style of writing, one that relies on two main literary devices: numerous allusions to classical mythology, and hyperbole, or exaggeration.

The euphuistic poem is not straightforward in its meaning. It is characterized by alliteration, simile, and long series of antitheses. Some of the alliteration in “First Dream” (alliteration refers to the repetition of the same sound or syllable in two or more words of a line) has been resurrected in translation. Examples abound in the first stanza: “towering tips,” “scaling stars,” “forever free, aglow forever.” The simile, a comparison of one thing with another, announced by the word “like” or “as,” is more difficult to reproduce in modern English. Probably the translator’s task is easiest when it comes to the series of antitheses.

The antithesis is the most significant literary device used in “First Dream.” An antithesis is a rhetorical term meaning “opposition.” Thus ideas are opposed, or contrasted, by using words of opposite meaning in contiguous clauses or phrases. A series of antitheses is, when read aloud, a mouthful, as in the first stanza of the poem. Here, with numerous phrases and clauses, the poet refers to the change from daylight to night as a “shadowy war” waged in “gaseous blackness” by the sun before it reaches “the convex side” of the “fair goddess’ orb” known as the moon.

The point is that, as simple as night may seem, the heavens must overturn in order for night to appear. The poet wants to give philosophical complexity to a phenomenon of nature; she wants the reader to think deeply about what is involved when the sun and the moon trade places, so she uses a series of antitheses, or opposites, within the same line.

The poet has chosen a very loose verse form. The silva is a Spanish form consisting of seven-or eleven-syllable lines. These lines are of unequal length, and the rhymes are not placed in any set pattern. On first reading, the silva structure may seem ponderous.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

“First Dream” has both a philosophical component and a personal component. It is about the apprehension of knowledge and about the nature of knowledge itself, but it is also an experiment with the poet’s own dream vision. The dream vision makes up the “story” of the narrative. This story is simple: As night falls, the poet sleeps in order to dream, in order to release her “soul” from her body. Only then is she free to investigate her subject—knowledge—in a sustained way.

The story illustrates the philosophical problem—the opposition between faith and knowledge, and the consequences for humankind. Sor Juana presents the church doctrine that condemns the pursuit of knowledge: The wish for knowledge is the hubris of humankind. Like Icarus, humans may fly too close to the sun, be blinded by its light, and then fall to the earth. This, in fact, is what happens to the mind. The mind’s ascent to God is pyramidal in shape; by the time it reaches the top of the pyramid, it is unable to distill further what it has apprehended. It falls back down into chaos, at which point the soul retreats. It is because of this fall that the Church condemns the pursuit of knowledge. Yet at the same time as Sor Juana teaches this doctrine in the poem, she presents an opposing view of the pursuit of knowledge.

There is a paradox between faith and knowledge, but that does not mean they cannot coexist. In other words, it may be, according to Church doctrine, folly to covet knowledge; but it is also courageous to crave knowledge, especially because full knowledge is never attainable. Unable to know fully, the narrator herself is finally wakened by daylight. Ironically, every “outer sense” has been restored to “full functioning.” The dream, then, has come to an end, and the poem has ended with the same (paradoxical) antithesis with which it began: faith versus knowledge.

“First Dream” is a significant poem for two reasons: It is probably the most sustained philosophical poem of the Baroque era (c. 1600-1700), and it was written by a woman. Although Sor Juana’s feminism is muted in this poem, her anger at the inferior role imposed upon women by men and, in particular, by the church is revealed elsewhere in her work, especially in the Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz (1700; reply of the poetess to the illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz).

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Themes