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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1724

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...

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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 everything is lies”). It has five speaking parts: La Vida (“life”), La Majestad (“majesty”), La Plebe (“the people”), La Naturaleza (“nature”), and La Lealtad (“loyalty”), and it is accompanied by two choirs. The loa begins by praising the king, Carlos II, passes to a discussion of the meaning of majesty (which is presented in positive terms), and then briefly describes the contents of Calderón’s play, which is about to begin.

The second type of work in the Inundación castálida is the villancico, which, like the loa, is circumstantial. The villancico is a popular poetic composition with a refrain based on a religious theme and normally sung in church at Christmas or at other religious holidays. One of the best set of villancicos in this work was originally sung in 1665 in the Cathedral of Mexico in honor of the Virgin Mary to celebrate her Assumption, and then it was printed in the Inundación castálida. It has various prayers to the Virgin Mary asking for her protection, choral parts, a refrain that is repeated, and even different linguistic styles and languages; one section is in Latin, another in black Spanish, and another in Basque.

The third element in the Inundación castálida, the Neptuno, is an allegorical description of the triumphal arch that was built for the viceroys de la Laguna on their arrival in Mexico City in 1680. This poem mixes description of the arch with references to classical mythology and other sources that delve into the symbolic meaning of the arch. It has three main parts: the dedication to the viceroy; the “Razón de la fábrica,” in which the building process is described; and the “Explicación del Arco,” in which the allegorical meaning of the building is drawn out for the audience.

The three elements described thus far are all circumstantial poems, written at the behest of a third party, whether it be the church, the king, or the viceroy. For this reason, they are sometimes seen by modern readers as not authentic literature. It is important to recall, however, that in the seventeenth century the writer was often backed by a wealthy patron. Later, and particularly during the nineteenth century, when Romanticism was at its height, readers began to demand and expect creative writing that focused on the private sphere of the emotions. In the process, the more practical view of literature fell out of fashion. It is important, however, to remember that Sor Juana’s work was produced in an era in which it was normal for a work of literature to be commissioned by the church or the king or the viceroy.

It is on the fourth group of poems, the personal poems, that Sor Juana’s international fame is based. These poems have the most varied types of poetic composition, ranging from sonnets (poems that have fourteen eleven-syllable lines) to décimas (poems that have ten eight-syllable lines), from redondillas (a metrical combination of four eight-syllable lines) to liras (a five-line metrical sequence combining lines of seven and eleven syllables). The most common form in this group of poems is the sonnet, a poetic form that denotes seriousness. Like the other three groups, this group of poems has a circumstantial dimension; thus, some poems were written for special circumstances, such as the vicereine’s birthday. What differentiates these poems, however, is that the circumstantial aspect becomes the springboard for something more profound. A poem that begins as the description of a portrait painting becomes a philosophical inquiry into the meaning of life: “Este, que ves, engaño colorido” (“this that you gaze on, colorful deceit”). There are a number of common themes in these poems, such as the conflict between appearance and essence and between the natural and the artificial, the brevity of human life, the delusion of love, and baroque disillusionment. The style of these poems is baroque, that is, characterized by a complex and elaborate form, ambiguous imagery, and dynamic intellectual oppositions and contrasts.

The better of the personal poems deal with philosophy and with love. Her philosophical poem “Rosa divina que en gentil cultura” (“divine rose which in gentle culture”), for example, deliberately chooses one of the most beautiful creations of the natural world (the rose) in order, ironically, to expose its frailty. The last line of the poem stresses the contrast between appearance and essence: “viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas” (“in living you deceive and in dying you teach”). The most intellectually brilliant poems within this group are the ones dedicated to love. Some of these poems, written, it must be assumed, before she took her vows, expose her as caught in an unbearable love triangle. She loves a man who does not love her, and she is loved by another man whom she does not love. The first stanza of “Al que ingrato me deja, busco amante” is a fine example of baroque conceit. It begins, “To the one who leaves me ungratefully, I seek as a lover;/ to the one who pursues me for love, I ungratefully leave;/ I constantly adore the one who mistreats my love;/ and I mistreat him who constantly desires my love.” Sor Juana’s most celebrated poem, “Hombres necios,” looks at the same dilemma but presents it from a universal rather than a subjective point of view. In this poem there is a clear example of Sor Juana’s feminist ideology. With devastating irony she criticizes men for attempting to find in women something they themselves are lacking. The first stanza encapsulates the argument of the whole poem. It reads, “Misguided men who will chastise/ a woman when no blame is due/ oblivious that it is you/ who prompted what you criticize.” The various examples that Sor Juana then uses are all designed to flesh out the abstraction of this argument. The sixth stanza, for example, refers to the irony of the man who breathes on a mirror (takes a woman’s virginity) and then complains he cannot see his own reflection (complains she is not chaste).

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