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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

First Dream, Sor Juana’s longest and most ambitious poem, takes the form of a dream retold after waking in the morning. It focuses on a matter of great importance to her: the human desire to know and understand the world. The text demonstrates Sor Juana’s own extensive scholarship. It also showcases her poetic skill with images. Central to this work are the numerous images associated with sleep that are woven into her account: night contrasted with day, the dominion of sleep over human beings, sleep as a type of death, the deception of dreams. Sor Juana herself attached great personal significance to this work, and she makes special mention of it in her famous letter, The Poet’s Answer to the Most Illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz.

In the opening lines, the shadow of night reaches toward the stars, but its “frowning gloom” surrounds only the earth. Night is not able to put out the light of the stars, “splendid lights, forever free, aglow forever.” Sor Juana calls the shadow “pyramidal,” and her interest in pyramids is explored later in a more intellectual fashion as she discusses Homer’s ideas regarding pyramids. The shape reflects the ambition of the mind, mounting upward and attempting ambitiously to grasp the essence of life and the First Cause of creation. Throughout her text, Sor Juana makes use of rhetorical figures to illustrate the action of the searching intelligence. Other parallel images refer to daring flight, including the failed flight of Icarus, whose wings, held on with wax, melted when he flew too close to the sun.

The poem explores the effects of night and darkness, commanding every living creature to sleep. First the animals, then people, fall under the spell. Morpheus, an image of death, is all-powerful—ruler and peasant alike must give in and rest. As the soul frees itself of the body, it begins to contemplate Creation. Scientific references to the four humors and the workings of the body give way to intellectual flight, with references to Atlas, Olympus, and the pyramids of Egypt.

The soul then enters the upper sphere and tries to grasp the immense complexity of creation, but the sheer numbers of creatures and elements...

(The entire section is 562 words.)