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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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).