Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1339
Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, a celebrated Mexican nun, was the greatest literary figure in the colonial New World, not only because of her lyrical ability but also because of her delightful personality. In the early seventeenth century there were few women in Hispanic America who could even sign their names, but with the developing culture, more and more girls received a sort of education in schools called “Amigas.” However, it was only a primary education. The University of Mexico, founded in 1551, was only for boys. Girls were not believed to have any need or desire for extensive learning.
This was not true, however, of Juana Inés de Ashbaje y Ramirez de Santillana, born in San Miguel de Nepantla, Mexico, in 1651. To keep her out of mischief, her mother sent her with an older sister to one of the Amigas. There the three-year-old unblushingly told the teacher that her mother wanted her taught how to read. The teacher, at first as a joke, then amazed at Juana’s quickness, taught her to read before her mother learned of the deception.
A craving for knowledge followed Juana throughout life. A few years later, having heard that cheese, of which she was very fond, stupefied the brain, the girl stopped eating it. When she thought she was not learning grammar as rapidly as she should, she cut back her hair, vowing not to let it grow long till she conquered the subject, “since a head so naked of knowledge ought not to be adorned with pretty hair.” Hearing about the university for men at the capital, she importuned her mother to let her disguise herself in men’s clothes and attend classes. At the age of eight, when she finally went to Mexico City to live with her grandparents, she learned Latin in order to read all the books in their library.
Turning suddenly to the religious life, she entered the convent of Santa Teresa la Antigua at the age of sixteen, but the rigorous discipline of the order proved too strict for her frail health and she was released. In 1669 she entered the convent of San Jeronimo. She remained a member till her death.
She early discovered her versifying ability and practiced it for formal and informal occasions. The latter part of the seventeenth century in America was the Baroque Period, with poetry and even prose full of distorted syntax, Latinisms, mythological and classical allusions, and an abundance of metaphors and ridiculous conceits. This Gongorism was the result of imitation of the Spanish poet Luis de Gongora y Argote.
Because of her wide reading, Sor Juana was bound to imitate the prevailing literary fashion when she began to write. Before long, however, she found other models. Critics find the influence of the great lyric poet Garcilaso de la Vega, who wrote in the Italian style with love as his chief theme. Though limited in number, his verses achieved perfection. His thirty-eight harmonious sonnets, in which emotion mingles with beauty, established that form in Spanish verse. At times Sor Juana also followed Lupercio and Bartolome Argensola, brothers who were among the most classic of poets.
Sor Juana experimented with every type of verse: sonnets, lyrics, ballads, redondillas of four line stanzas and a specific rhyme scheme, villancicos or rustic Christmas carols, and drama, both short autos sacramentales and full-length plays. She synthesized many of the poetic currents, learned and popular, Renaissance and Baroque, with even traces of mysticism. Her subject matter ran from the deeply spiritual to such humor as the ovillejo concerning the beauty of Lisarda.
Especially, she wrote love poems. Love versus Reason was a favorite theme. Of her sixty-five sonnets, twenty-two deal with love. Critics argue how much of her work is autobiographical and how much either the result of her observation or conformity to literary trends. There is a tradition that she had an unfortunate early love affair with the Count of Mancera. Several Mexican playwrights, Jose Rosas Moreno and Octavio Meza, have dramatized the story for the stage.
But was her well-known example of REDONDILLAS founded on fact? It begins:
Stupid men, quick to condemnWomen wrongly for their flaws,Never seeing you’re the causeOf all that you blame on them!
Was she talking of her own experiences when she went on?
She who’s modest cannot holdMan’s esteem. We’re all thought naughty.If we don’t accept, we’re haughty;If we welcome you, we’re bold.
Is that her personal pronoun in the final stanza?
Women need be strong, I findTo stay safe and keep unharmedSince the arrogant male comes armedWith Devil, flesh, and world combined.
Her fellow countryman, Ermilo Abreu Gomez, editor of a volume of her poetry, declared that her poetic reputation rests essentially on her lyric verse, which is for the most part amorous. During her lifetime her personality so charmed everyone that she was called Mexico’s Tenth Muse and everything she wrote was accepted uncritically. Before she became a nun, she was lady in waiting to the Marquesa de Mancera, wife of the Viceroy. Later after she had taken her vows, her cell in the convent became a meeting place of the leaders of Mexico’s intellectual life.
Two books of her poems were published during her lifetime. The first appeared in Spain in 1689 under the title INUNDACION CASTALIDA DE LA UNICA POETISA, MUSA DECIMA, SOR JUANA INES DE LA CRUZ (THE CASTALIAN FLOOD OF THE UNIQUE POETESS, THE TENTH MUSE, SISTER JUANA INES DE LA CRUZ). Three years later a second volume was published in Seville. In 1700, five years after her death, a Madrid publisher printed FAMA Y OBRAS POETESS, THE TENTH MUSE, SISTER JUANA MUSA (POSTHUMOUS FAME AND WORKS OF THE PHOENIX OF MEXICO AND THE TENTH MUSE.)
What is known of her early life can be read in one of the greatest autobiographical letters in Spanish literature, A REPLY TO SOR PHILOTEA DE LA CRUZ, written in 1691. An acquaintance, Bishop Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, of Puebla, wrote her some admonitions under the signature of Sor Philotea, suggesting that to be holy she spend less time on worldly things and more on religious matters. The letter brought a reply from her telling of lifelong craving for knowledge, of childhood episodes, and stating that she had never written anything of her own volition, but always from outside urging, except “Primero Sueno” (“First Dream”) whose subtitle declares it an imitation of the SOLEDADES or VISIONS of Gongora. While much of the poem is an arabesque of interwoven images and sentences made difficult by artificial grammar, many of the thousand lines are pure poetry and show her intellectual knowledge of her art. In the silva meter of irregular lines, Sister Juana tells how in a dream her soul caught a glimpse of the whole of creation and in dismay returned in humility to undertake a further search for knowledge, simple and complicated, with attendant doubts and uncertainties. Apparently no one has ever put its baroque verses into an English translation.
However, a number of her sonnets appear in English form. From one of them a reader can get an idea of her style with its Gongoristic ornaments:
This trickery of paint which you per-ceiveWith all the finest hues of art en-wrought,Which is false argument of colorstaughtBy subtle means the senses to de-ceive—This by which foolish woman wouldbelieveShe could undo the evils years havebroughtAnd conquering in the war againsttime foughtCould triumph over age, and youthretrieve—Is all a futile ruse that she has tried,A fragile flower tossed against the wind,A useless bribe the power of fate toappease,A silly effort of mistaken pride,A base desire, and viewed in rightfulmind,Is dust, a corpse, a shade,—is less thanthese.
The admonitions of the bishop brought results. Sor Juana sold her private library of four thousand books, surely the largest collection in the New World, concentrated on religious work, and died four years later nursing sisters in the convent during a plague.
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