Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was known throughout seventeenth century Mexico and Spain for her skill in almost all forms of baroque poetry: pastoral poems, sonnets, love poems, romances, religious poetry in several traditional forms, portrait poetry, and drama. In poetry written mostly for religious and civil ceremonies, she cleverly displays the customary poetic devices of the age—parallelism, oxymoron, paradox, mythological allusion (even in her religious poetry), and metaphors drawn from physics, mathematics, and music. A birthday poem states: “Let your age, my lord, so greatly exceed/ The capacity embraced by zero/ That the ars combinatoria of Kircher/ Are unable to multiply its quantity.” Even her love poetry is intellectual and expressed in careful, mannered, and elegant language. A love poem begins: “Halt, reflection of my elusive love,/ Image of the charm I most adore,/ Lovely illusion for whom I gaily die,/ Sweet fiction for whom I sadly live.”
What sets her poetry apart from all other of the time is her theme: the equality of women and their right to an education and an intellectual life. A love poem that begins in a very traditional way: “Feliciano adores me, and I abhor him;/ Lisardo abhors me, and I adore him” ends with a surprisingly feminist declaration: “But I, as the better alternative, choose/ To serve him whom I don’t love, against my will/ Rather than be, of him who doesn’t love me, the despised victim.”
Even in her religious poetry, Sor Juana employs intellectual metaphors and declares a feminist theme. A poem dedicated to Saint Catherine, a martyr of the church, declares: “By a woman they are convinced,/ All the sages of Egypt,/ By her proof that sex/ Is not the essence of sense . . . / She studies, argues, and teaches/ And is of service to the Church,/ For God doesn’t want her to be ignorant/ Since He made her a rational being.” Sor Juana’s insistence on an intellectual and rational view of life, divorced from emotional and sexual bias, shapes her long poem First Dream. In this philosophical discourse, the soul, after the body has fallen asleep, attempts to grasp creation intuitively. Failing this, it tries again, using Aristotle’s dialectical method, moving from the simple to the more complex. Failing again, the soul admits the impossibility of complete comprehension of the universe, but in its failure recognizes the value of intellectual effort in giving meaning to life, as Sor Juana herself recognized.
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