The Grandeur of the Mundane
Sor Juana’s “First Dream” meditates on deeply existential questions about the nature of man, knowledge, and creation. These questions are presented through a dream, relayed stream-of-consciousness-style through flickering images of mythologized and fantastic events. Such images are the conjuration of “well-tempered humors” transformed by the “moderate bonfire of human warmth”; in short, the refined, intellectual material of the poem is simply a biological manifestation of the gastrointestinal tract performing its most basic function.
The poem’s pursuit of knowledge—located in the physiology of sleep, the philosophy of the dream state, and the earthly environs of the night—finds existential reveries in these widely accessible sites of lived experience. While the speaker briefly attains an “elevated pyramid of mind,” described as more magnificent than the “two Pyramids” and the “lofty blasphemous Tower” combined, her tenure there is brief. Indeed, the sites of grandeur in the poem all stem from the simplicity of nature’s nightly rhythms and the body’s daily demands. Nightfall, slumber, digestion, wakefulness, daybreak: the mundane patterns of mankind are the building blocks that fuel the grandiose images and questions of the dreamscape. Too, the poem’s mythological allusions reinforce the meaning which can be found in the familiar. Often drawing on myths of humans turned into animals (as in Acteon, the “timid hart”) or geographical features personified (as in Arethusa, “the laughing brook”), these allusions add meaning and character to simple objects and creatures. No longer is an eagle simply an eagle; indeed, it is elevated and made magnificent when referred to as “Jupiter’s bird.”
The inevitable failure of the speaker to attain the knowledge she seeks, awakening before the answers she so desires dawn, seems less disappointing than perhaps it first appears. Simple, biological acts such as sleep and digestion can capture the briefest glimpse of divinity; to crave knowledge is to be human, so much so that it is coded into the simplest unconscious functions and visible in the most commonplace settings and objects.
The Limits of the Mind
The narrative progression of “First Dream” utilizes the daily cycles of mankind and nature to detail the limits of the human mind and man’s pursuit of knowledge. As night falls, the speaker details an extended, strictly procedural description of sleep. The body, now simply a “corpse with a soul,” embarks on a familiar biological path as the heart, “the core of vital spirits,” and the lungs, the body’s “breathing bellows,” follow a set pattern of inhalation and exhalation. These rhythmic patterns are fueled by the “vegetal warmth” supplied in “exact account” by the stomach through the process of digestion. Not only does it fuel the body, but digestion also sends “vapors” of the “four well-tempered humors” to the brain. In doing so, the brain begins to archive the events of the day into memory. Detailed procedurally with explicit details and empirical clarity, the biological process of sleep (framed, as it must be, within the scientific context of the poet’s lifetime) is clearly delineated and understood exactly.
“First Dream” relies on juxtaposition and contrast; it makes sense, then, that the speaker’s absolute knowledge of the science of sleep is countered by her floundering effort to find answers to life’s abstract questions. She finds it easy to explain how the body functions but struggles to discover why it does so. The broader questions of existential meaning escape her; neither her spiritual pursuits nor her intellectual efforts can provide the answers she so desperately seeks. Indeed, the speaker falls short in each attempt, either crashing to Earth in her hubris, blinded by the sight of the “immense assemblage” of...
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“all of creation,” or awakening at dawn with the world never fully categorized. Limited, perhaps, by “a single object” from whom “true understanding shies away” or simply by the mind itself, the speaker must come to terms with the fact that human knowledge can only extend so far.
Neither soaring spiritual summit nor precise intellectual category offer the insight she seeks. Instead, the body awakens, a process described just as the process of sleeping; there is a particular procedure to this biological function, one explicated in ways that the existential cannot be.
Intellectual versus Spiritual Knowledge
Similarly to Sor Juana’s own life, “First Dream” depicts not only the search for knowledge and meaning but also the struggle of how to do so. Though she was a nun, Sor Juana chose her path out of a desire to spend her life absorbed in her studies rather than in more traditional domestic pursuits. As such, much of her adult life was consumed by the disjointed spheres she navigated, at once firmly enmeshed in the spiritual realm while still firmly drawn to the intellectual and artistic desires that brought her, by necessity, to the church.
This division is evident throughout “First Dream,” visible as the speaker navigates her soul’s pursuit of knowledge and meaning. Her interest in understanding operates in direct contrast to church doctrine that demands faith. Soaring to “the elevated pyramid of mind” to look down at all below is an act that, to the church, constitutes the worst of human pride. To not only seek proof of divinity but pretend to it is hubris, and the speaker indeed suffers for it, crashing violently to Earth with tear-stricken eyes. Yet, though she suffers as Icarus does, punished for pride and folly, the speaker cannot turn from the pursuit. Faith alone cannot suffice, and she reorients the “ship of the soul” on a more “prudent” course led by “temperate wisdom” and “thoughtful judgment.” Embarking on a logical approach inspired by the ten “artfully constructed categories,” the speaker returns to her initial pursuit, seeking to understand the divine workings of man and nature through a more measured approach.
The central tension of the poem hinges on the disconnect between faith and knowledge, as the speaker seeks the latter while attempting to preserve the former. As the dream ends and the speaker’s questions remain unresolved, the two doctrines of understanding—spirituality and intellectualism—occupy a state of comfortable coexistence, seeking, but never attaining, the proximity to and understanding of divinity as it exists in the world.