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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 1,061 words.)