Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is the most significant poet and writer of the colonial period in the Americas. Born of a poor family in the village of San Miguel de Nepantla near a town called Amecameca, not far from Mexico City, she learned to read at the age of three, and the pursuit of knowledge subsequently became her true passion. Barred from attending the University in Mexico City because she was a woman, her plan to attend classes dressed as a man failed. Sor Juana’s intellectual precocity attracted the interest of Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna, and for a time she served in his palace. During this period she became a very good friend of the viceroy’s wife, Vicereine Luisa Gonzaga Manrique de Lara, the countess of Paredes, marchioness de la Laguna.
In 1669, Sor Juana took vows as a nun and entered the Convent of San Jerónimo in Mexico City; at this point she adopted the name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, by which she is conventionally known. While there, Sor Juana wrote plays, poetry, and prose. Her life of intellectual pleasure was ruined, however, with the publication in 1700 of her Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz (“reply to Sister Philotea”), written in response to the bishop of Puebla’s recommendation that she turn her mind to spiritual rather than mundane, literary matters. The authorities silenced her; she sold her library and distributed the profits to the poor. She died while tending the sick in Mexico City. Just before her death, in a bout of deep contrition, she signed her name in blood with the words “I, Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, the worst in the world.”
Inundación castálida (“the Castilian flood of the unique poet”), published in Spain in 1689, was dedicated to Vicereine de la Laguna, who was so impressed by its contents that she brought the manuscript to Madrid to have it printed. Its publication was funded by Don Juan Camacho Gayna, a gentleman of the Order of Santiago and then governor of the city of Puerto de Santa María, as the frontispiece of Inundación castálida states. While in the Convent of San Jerónimo, Sor Juana continued to write, her fame spread, and she became known as the Tenth Muse of Mexico. When Inundación castálida was published, it was a great success and was reprinted nine times (a very high number for a time when the printing of a book was a major financial enterprise and when books rarely went beyond a first edition). It was intended to be the first of the three volumes of her complete works. After the publication of Inundación castálida, Sor Juana’s confessor, Father Núñez de Miranda, perhaps through jealousy, put pressure on Sor Juana to give up writing poetry in order to concentrate on her religious duties.
The works collected in Inundación castálida are not grouped either thematically or chronologically in the original 1689 edition. This may seem strange to the modern reader who expects more order in the edition of a work of literature. It is important to recall, however, that Inundación castálida is a compilation and therefore brings together separate pieces of creative writing. It would not have been unusual for parts of this book to have been copied down by readers and then circulated to others. The poems in Inundación castálida can, however, be divided into four groups: loas, villancicos, the extended poem Neptuno, and personal lyrics.
The loas, villancicos, and Neptuno in Inundación castálida are all circumstantial poems; that is, they were commissioned by a third party, normally to commemorate an important historical or ritual event. The loa is an introit, or miniplay, that acts as a preface to a play about to be performed. One of the best examples of the loa in Inundación castálida is dedicated to Carlos II and was performed on November 6, 1681 or 1682, in the viceroy’s palace before the performance of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1679 play En esta vida todo es verdad y todo es mentira (“in this life everything is true and...
(The entire section is 1,724 words.)