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);...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

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 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...

(The entire section is 422 words.)