Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748
This anthology illustrates the range of poetry that Sor Juana cultivated, including occasional verse (for special occasions and poetry contests), love poetry, religious verses (especially villancicos), and humorous poetry. Critics have found it impossible to date most of this work since the originals have been lost and her style does not evolve. From the beginning, Sor Juana’s verse shows the wit, polish, and learning expected in the Baroque period. Her work demonstrates a sense of form and proportion as well as a control of classical references and the metaphorical imagery of her time: exotic material, gems, fragrances, and creatures, often with symbolic meaning. The Baroque use of paradox, hyperbole, antithesis, repetition, and scholarly logic and argument characterize her work. In accordance with the conventions of the time, her poems are not personal revelations but rather a demonstration of poetic skill. With the forms dictated by convention, her individual talent emerges through the ingenious use of well-known images or in her particular tone or emphasis.
A number of her poems touch on conventional aspects of love, including the idealization of the beloved, the pain of separation and rejection, the feelings of distant and pure love, and the irrational effects of love. Some critics have observed that Sor Juana’s perspective at times seems more masculine than feminine, that poetry addressed to a woman is often more intense than that addressed to shadowy male figures named Silvio or Fabio. One explanation notes that Sor Juana’s early life lacked strong male figures; however, a more probable explanation is that the poetic tradition she was following was exclusively masculine—there was no appropriate feminine language to celebrate love. As an intellectual, she availed herself of the conventional forms.
In describing her world, Sor Juana shows great skill in portraiture with well-crafted variations to present the interplay between portrait and subject. One poem disavows a portrait of herself as flattery, reflecting the Baroque attitude toward the vanity and illusion of life. The poem ends with a conventional idea: “all efforts fail and in the end/ a body goes to dust, to shade, to nought.”
Writing was a central part of Sor Juana’s life and identity, and this fact is reflected in poems that identify her with her pen. Her pen expresses the pain of separation with sad, black-colored pen strokes, and words of mourning become “black tears.” A frequent wordplay, made possible by the fact that pluma in Spanish is both pen and feather, is noted in the introductory materials, “Pluma” is a synecdoche for wing, contributing an extra dimension to the image of bold flight so important to Sor Juana. “First Dream,” for example, focuses on intellectual striving, or what translator Trueblood calls “unrepentant boldness,” associated with the Greek myth of Phaëthon and his failed flight in his father Helios’ chariot.
Baroque poetry is characterized by its exoticism and its opulence in description. In Sor Juana’s poetry, one finds references to her own land, exotic to the Europeans. One poem refers to a sorcerer’s brew of “the herb-doctors of my country.” In a villancico for the feast of the Assumption, she introduces the tocotín, a lively Aztec dance, with accompanying Nahuatl words. In others, she focuses on Africa, incorporating rhythmic African words in a refrain or presenting “two Guinean queens/ with faces of jet.” The pride of her countrywomen shines forth in verses such as these: “Black is the Bride,/ the Sun scorches her face./ Though she calls herself black,/ her blackness, she shall say,/ makes her the more comely.”
In other poems, Sor Juana addresses her personal situation through a direct con-frontation with the price of her intellectual distinction. The most famous poses this question: “World, in hounding me what do you gain?/ How can it harm you if I choose, astutely,/ rather to stock my mind with things of beauty,/ than waste its stock on every beauty’s claim?” She is also acutely aware of the role that her gender plays in the praise of her work, as well as in its criticism. In an unfinished poem, she writes of her aspirations and failures. Rationally considering the situation, she wonders if being a woman has not made European readers too quick to praise her: “Might it be the surprise of my sex/ that explains why you are willing/ to allow an unusual case/ to pass itself off as perfection?” Praised or criticized, she found herself in the difficult position of being an anomaly.
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