Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Poetry: World Poets Analysis

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Although most of the compositions have merit, the lyric poems, in the order of their treatment here, are usually considered to be the best, and they may be used as a point of departure for delineating a canon of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s most significant writings.

Sor Juana was a deeply passionate and intelligent woman who dedicated her life to knowledge and spiritual perfection. On one hand, she seems to have renounced love for intellectual freedom, and from her amatory and philosophical writings, it appears that her renunciation of the world, along with her commitment to learning, paradoxically caused an obsession with intimacy and a profound disillusionment with any reality except that of spiritual intimacy. On the other hand, judging from her other prose and verse, Sor Juana was also a writer engaged with her society, closely involved with its institutions and its native culture. An anthology of Sor Juana’s most popular compositions may slight this more social side of her personality, but it is important to remember as one reviews her major poems of love and disillusionment that the poetess wrote more concerning religion than about any real or imaginary love and that she was as adept at elaborate versification about current events and visitors to the viceroyalty as at revealing her most private feelings. It is not difficult to dwell on the more romantic side of the “tenth muse,” to use certain of her poems to enhance the image of a jilted, precocious, disenchanted teenage intellectual sequestering herself in a convent and spending her life in extremely elaborate sublimation. Her most famous pieces contribute to such an image, but as the reader is exposed to a wider spectrum of her talents, a more balanced picture emerges; a trajectory of maturation becomes visible in which Catholicism and the Baroque are means to the self-fulfillment and self-expression originally thwarted in her youth by her lack of social position and her fascination with scholarship.

Progression of love

If one reads Sor Juana’s writings to observe a progression from human to divine love, it is appropriate to begin with the sonnet “Esta tarde, mi bien” (this afternoon, my love). The poem is one of the few in which she relates a moving encounter with another person, and it contrasts the impotency of words with the efficacy of tears in the communication of love. Here, there is none of the love-hate dialectic that colors most of her amatory poems; instead, one finds the description of a delicately feminine, sensitive, and formidably talented personality in a moment of unguarded abandon. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that after “Esta tarde, mi bien,” one sees in Sor Juana’s verse the psychological effects of an unhappy affair rather than the experience of love itself. Even the tender lira “Amado dueño mio” (my beloved master), while documenting in a poetic sense the dimensions of intimacy, is a conventional lament of the lover separated from the beloved. The lover, like a Renaissance shepherdess, tells her misfortunes to the wind, which carries her complaints, her passion, and her sadness to the distant partner. Alfonso Méndez Plancarte states that the poem contains some of Sor Juana’s finest lines and that it may surpass the eclogues of Garcilaso de la Vega. The comparison with Garcilaso is appropriate, and poetry in his likeness is fitting to express the absence of consummation rather than its presence; significantly, the lira keynotes a thematic transformation from completion to emptiness.

The sonnet “Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo” (stay, shadow of my scornful love) can be considered an introduction to a series...

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of poems that admit both the positive and negative effects of passion as well as the inconclusive status of unconsummated love. In “Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo,” the beloved himself eludes the poet, but his image cannot escape the prison of her fantasy. Important in this and the poems under discussion below is the counterpoint of conceits and emotions about the love “por quien alegre muero” (for whom I would happily die) but also “por quien penosa vivo” (for whom I live in agony), which develops to an extreme in the sonnet “Al que Ingrato me deja, busco amante” (I seek the one who spurns me) and “Que no me quiera Fabio, al verse amado” (that Fabio does not love me as I love him), and theredondilla “Este amoroso tormento” (this torment of love). In the latter piece, as in the other poems of this group, the poet never finds fulfillment, “porque, entre alivio y dolar, hallo culpa en el amor y disculpa en el olvido” (because between relief and pain, I find blame in love and exoneration in forgetfulness).

Beyond frustration and the love-hate duality that the poet attributes to romantic feeling lie disillusionment and bitterness. The sonnets “Silvio, yo te aborezco” (I hate you, Silvio), “Amor empieza por desasosiego” (love begins uneasily), and “Con el dolor de la mortal herida” (with the pain of a mortal wound) are among Sor Juana’s strongest denunciations of the men she once might have loved, as well as of herself for having given in to loving them: “no solo a tí, corrida, te aborrezco,/ pero a mí por el tiempo que te quise” (not only do I abhor you/ but myself for the time that I loved you). Here the bittersweet of “Este amoroso tormento” turns to anger. The image of the lover purposely retained in “Detente, sombra de mi bien esquivo” is repeatedly banished, and it is a logical movement from such rejection to the sátira filosófica, "Hombres necios" (“Foolish Men”), one of Sor Juana’s more popular denunciations of men as the source of all women’s problems. In these feminist redondillas, the poet exposes the ways in which men “acusan lo que causan” (blame us for the things they cause). Why, she asks, do men want women to be good if they tempt them to be bad? Who, she questions, is the greater sinner, “la que peca por la paga o el que paga por pecar” (she who sins for pay or he who pays for sin)?

Because Sor Juana’s poems are not usually dated, there is no way of knowing whether the progression from the delicate, loving “Esta tarde, mi bien” to the sarcastic “Hombres necios” reflects the sequential effects of an increasingly unhappy situation. In any case, these poems of erotic experience do fit a pattern that begins with brief reciprocal affection and degenerates into ambivalence, then finally into contempt. There are, at the same time, a great number of poems written to women which do not fit this generalization. Sor Juana apparently had very meaningful relationships with the wives of two of the Mexican viceroys, and her many verses to Lysi show a far more consistent emotional response than that depicted in poems of male-female interaction. Certainly the Lysi poems, perhaps especially the ornate “Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato” (the sky is lamina of your portrait), are a moving contrast to her more widely read poems’ heterosexual canon.

Philosophic poems

Sor Juana’s philosophic poems complement her negative attitude toward worldly love. “Verde embeleso de la vida humana” (green charm of human life) rejects illusions and hope as deceptive: “solamente lo que toco veo” (“I only see what I can touch”). It represents the repression of vain dreams, the acceptance of life without romance or even platonic fantasy. “Diuturna enfermedad de la Esperanza” (lasting infirmity of hope) reiterates this concept, and “Este que ves, engaño colorido” (this painted lie you see), a sonnet on her portrait, is an intense affirmation of the Roman Catholic view that the flesh is “polvo, es sombra, es nada” (“is dust, is a shadow, is nothing”). Her “Rosa divina” (divine rose) is a variation on the universal theme of the brevity of beauty and life. Perhaps her most powerful renunciation is “Finjamos que soy feliz” (pretend that I am happy), in which she denies the validity of knowledge and maintains that because humans can know nothing for certain, ignorance is preferable to imperfect knowing: “aprendamos a ignorar” (“let us learn to not know”). “Finjamos que soy feliz” is a moment of despair within the context of Sor Juana’s self-confessed lifelong passion, the pursuit of knowledge. Her monumental First Dream, the only work that she admitted to writing for her own pleasure and not to please someone else, is far more balanced in presenting her attitude toward learning.

First Dream

First Dream, which is among the best philosophic poems in Spanish, is the height of Sor Juana’s exploration of the Baroque. The poem begins with a description of nightfall, in which the entire physical world eventually succumbs to sleep. The human spirit, freed from the constraint of the body, soars upward to find a perspective from which it can comprehend the immensity of the universe. Once it glimpses the overpowering dimensions of creation, the soul retreats to the shadows. Finding a mental shore on the sea of knowledge, it decides to approach the challenge of learning by dividing things into categories and mastering each division separately. In spite of doubts that the mind can really know anything, echoes of the dark vision of “Finjamos que soy feliz,” the soul continues its search for truth. Dawn arrives, however, and the dream ends inconclusively. Universal knowledge has eluded the soul, but the dreamer has not despaired.

Once considered to be on the fringe of literature because of its purposeful Gongorism, First Dream is enjoying the positive reconsideration accorded the entire Spanish Baroque, in the course of which Luis de Góngora y Argote himself has been reinstated into the canon of major Spanish poets. Accepting the style of this poem as not only valid but also essential to its meaning, one can better appreciate Sor Juana’s most mature and complex statement about the human condition. It is the culmination of a lifetime of study and reflection.

Sacred ballads

Sor Juana’s religious writings include several “sacred ballads,” among which “Amante dulce del alma” (sweet love of my soul), “Mientras la Gracia me exita” (while Grace moves me), and “Traigo conmigo un cuidado” (I have a deep concern) are generally held in high regard. All three attempt to express the effects of divine love. “Amante dulce del alma” asks why Christ might have willed to visit the poet in Holy Communion: Has he decided to be present from love or from jealousy? She decides for the former, reflecting that since God knows all things, he can see into her heart and has no reason to be jealous. “Mientras la Gracia me exita” tries to clarify some of the feelings involved in the inner struggle between “la virtud y la costumbre” (virtue and habit). Like “Amante dulce del alma,” this is a poem of scruples rather than a meditation of universal religious significance. “Traigo conmigo un cuidado” carries the analysis of spiritual love further and contrasts it with the poet’s experience of human love. “La misma muerte que vivo, es la vida con que muero” (“the same death that I live is the life in which I die”), she writes at the end of the poem, attempting to sum up her contradictory mental state. Even though it is divine love that causes her to feel the way she does, there are parallels between the contrarias penas (“contradictory anxieties”) of “Este amoroso tormento” and those expressed in “Traigo conmigo un cuidado.”

It is more fruitful to look for a developed sense of religious experience in Sor Juana’s villancicos and her play The Divine Narcissus than in her personal religious lyrics. Although these works have generally been neglected, scholar Méndez Plancarte and others have made convincing defenses of their genres as well as of the verse itself. The Divine Narcissus contains some of Sor Juana’s best writing, and, with the loa (or one-act play) that precedes it, shows how she introduced local themes into her work. The most significant element of the play, however, is the successful depiction of divine love, sufficiently anthropomorphized to give it comprehensible human beauty. Here is also the full evolution of a spiritual maturity that finally quiets the older, worldly concerns.


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Drama Analysis


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz World Literature Analysis