Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Sor Juana Anthology is a collection of some of the best poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, along with a sample of her poetic drama and prose, selected by Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz and translator Alan S. Trueblood. Since her poetry is the heart of her achievement, it forms the major part of the anthology, divided to indicate general themes and type of verse: convent and court, vicarious love, music, divine love, self and the world, lighter pieces, and festive worship (villancicos). Sor Juana’s work clearly places her among Spanish poets of the Baroque in the tradition of Luis de Góngora and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Her lyrical poetry was praised for its ingenious use of conventional forms: decorative and exotic imagery, symbolism, hyperbole, antithesis, paradox, and references to philosophy, science, and other areas of learning. The modern reader, however, may occasionally sense an individual voice behind the conventions and appreciate glimpses of Sor Juana’s struggles to express herself artistically under the constraints of being a woman in seventeenth century Mexico.

Sor Juana’s poetic drama is exemplified by excerpts from El divino Narciso (c. 1680; The Divine Narcissus, 1945), a series of allegorical tableaux in which human nature reveals her quest of Christ in the form of Narcissus. As an auto sacramental (one-act play celebrating the Eucharist), it is considered a masterpiece....

(The entire section is 539 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Sor Juana is recognized today as an outstanding poet of Mexico’s colonial period, her work reflects the life of an intelligent woman who was not nurtured in this endeavor by her seventeenth century environment. Not allowed to attend the university, she was essentially self-taught, and her work is the product of a searching mind which enjoyed scholarly activity. The very existence of this work is a great accomplishment.

In conflict with society’s expectations of a woman of her time, Sor Juana nevertheless found a way to develop her talent. Since education was a prerogative of the Catholic church, she entered the convent of Santa Paula, of the Hieronymite Order, in 1669. Her religious duties seem to have been compatible with a very active scholastic life. Sometimes celebrated as an early feminist, Sor Juana gave voice to the idea that women did not need to remain ignorant. A villancico for the Saint’s Day of Catherine of Alexandria (1691) uses the humorous tone of the common people in telling the story of Catherine, who “knew a lot, so they say,/ though she was female.” Fortunately, this did not present a problem: “The makings of sainthood/ was in her, they say;/ even knowing so much/ didn’t get in her way.” Humor was used again in her famous poem on the double standard (“Silly, you men—so very adept/ at wrongly faulting womankind”), in which she points out that men criticize women regardless of how they act:...

(The entire section is 469 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Flynn, Gerard. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Boston: Twayne, 1971. A readable introduction to the life of Sor Juana and her work. Selections of her poetry and both secular and religious drama are reviewed, with quotations from the texts. (English translations are provided.) Includes helpful explanatory notes to each chapter and a bibliography with mainly Spanish-language sources.

Merrim, Stephanie, ed. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Eight articles explore from a feminist perspective each of the genres in which Sor Juana wrote, also discussing her cultural climate and personal pressures. Of particular interest are the introductory essay on key issues in Sor Juana criticism and readings of “First Dream,” “The Reply to Sor Philothea,” and selected love poetry. Offers a brief bibliography, including English editions of her work, and a chronology.

Montross, Constance M. Virtue or Vice? Sor Juana’s Use of Thomistic Thought. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. Examines Sor Juana’s use of Scholastic doctrine and methodology, specifically the ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The author analyzes the combination of belief and questioning in “First Dream” and “The Reply to Sor Philothea.” An extensive bibliography is provided, as well as the full...

(The entire section is 413 words.)