Juana Inés de la Cruz 1651–1695
(Born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje) Mexican poet, playwright, and autobiographer.
Juana is recognized as one of the most important female writers of her time. Her most acclaimed poem El sueño, is praised for its personal, lyric qualities as well as its incorporation of images from history, mythology, science, physiology, and philosophy. Her passionate defense of female intellectual rights has led many critics to cite her as a significant feminist poet and scholar.
Juana was born on November 12, 1651, on a small farm southeast of Mexico City. Her parents were not married, and the fact that she was born illegitimate was a stigma that followed her the rest of her life. She was a precocious reader, and her obsessive interest in scholarly topics was considered very unusual for young girls at that time. At the age of eight, she had already composed poetry and a prologue to a play. She was sent to Mexico City to live with relatives, and it was at that time she came to the attention of the viceroy, the marquis of Mancera, and his wife. Her wit and sharp intelligence made her a favorite in their court, and she was recognized as a formidable intellectual presence. It was at court that she was asked to write verse commemorating special social or political events of the day. She entered the Carmelite convent on August 14, 1667, but a year later left to join the convent of St. Jerome. The religious life allowed her a limited degree of social independence and intellectual pursuit, and she continued to study philosophy, history, and literature. Near the end of her life, she was pressured to concentrate on only serious poetry and theological essays; her response, Respueta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz, is considered a strong self-defense of her intellectual development and has become a recognized hallmark of feminist literature. Disillusioned at the publicity this document generated, Juana withdrew from public life. She died of an unidentified plague on April 16, 1695.
A prolific writer, Juana composed personal lyrics, poetic portraits, religious verse, and villancicos. Primarily sonnets, her lyrics are characterized by conventional structure, an intellectually rational approach, and autobiographical subject matter. Her verse expresses the themes of love, jealousy, duty, and absence and incorporates elements of mythology, theology, science, literature, and
history. In her twelve sequences of villancicos—poems sung by a choir on major feast days—Juana presents an innovative, often humorous celebration of Mexican life.
Juana is almost universally lauded for her concise, spirited poems that reflect the public, religious, and social life of Mexico in the seventeenth-century. Critics note how she fused traditional poetic forms with fresh use of language to create vibrant, innovative verse. El sueño, her best-known poem, has been studied for its deft treatment of philosophical and autobiographical issues. Juana has been praised for her incorporation of images and subject matter from a diverse group of intellectual interests, such as literature, mythology, science, theology, physiology, and history. The influence of many major and minor Spanish poets have been found in her poetry, from Lope de Vega, Gongora, Quevedo, and Agustin de Salazar y Torres. Many commentators have analyzed the feminist ideology in both her prose and her poetry and consider her a strong feminist icon and a courageous, talented writer.