Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sor Juana’s fame rests on her lyrical poetry. Her work is highly praised for its use of symbolism, decorative and exotic imagery, hyperbole, contrast, paradox, and references to important fields of learning in her time, such as philosophy, theology, and science. While the modern reader may occasionally wish for a more personal and individual voice behind her writings’ highly stylized conventions, her work clearly places her among the poets of the Baroque tradition of Spain. She shares in this tradition with writers like Luis de Góngora y Argote and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Her poems are demonstrations of talent in manipulating language and form, rather than personal revelations. From the beginning, Sor Juana’s writing shows skill in using the styles of her time. Her intelligence and extensive reading are evident. From the time she entered the convent in 1669, Sor Juana wrote many poems, but it is impossible to date them exactly because the originals have been lost and because her style does not exhibit much change. Her works show a great sense of form and proportion and an ability with wordplay and contrasts.

Sor Juana cultivated the full range of poetry typical for her times, including courtly poems, occasional verse (for special occasions and poetry contests), humorous poetry, religious verses (especially villancicos, carols composed to be sung on a religious holiday), and love poetry. Her courtly poems are numerous, but the love poetry is considered more important—among them are some poems considered to be Sor Juana’s best.

The critics of her time did not find it strange that a nun would write love poetry. She wrote as a woman of the upper classes and enjoyed the protection of the court. Of course, at the same time she was writing villancicos, an appropriate activity for a nun. Her love poems explore conventional aspects of the theme: the pain of rejection, the beauty of the beloved, the irrationality of being in love, and the emotion of pure and distant love. Some of the poetry is addressed to a shadowy male figure named Silvio or Fabio while other times she speaks in a male persona and addresses her verses to a woman. The latter poems correspond most nearly to convention.

Baroque poetry is characterized by extravagant description and a love of the exotic. Sor Juana’s verses incorporate her homeland, Mexico, which was certainly an exotic place from the European perspective. As Mexican poet and cultural critic Octavio Paz has noted, the mestizos and mulattoes she describes are primarily picturesque and semicomic, in keeping with the seventeenth century view of the low position of such people. One poem introduces an herb doctor and his sorcerer’s brew, while another, a villancico, presents the tocotín, a lively Aztec dance complete with Nahuatl words.

When Sor Juana describes her world at court, she creates portraits, exploring as she does so the differences between the subject and his or her portrait. One poem, speaking of a flattering portrait of herself, reflects upon life’s illusion and vanity, which ends with death and a return to dust. Other portraits, like one of Lisarda, make fun of the literary style in which they are written, using self-parody. This type of literary game, which is hard for the modern reader to appreciate, contains many imaginative and charming moments.

Writing was an integral part of Sor Juana’s identity, and some of her poems use imagery that identifies her with her pen. In one example, her pen produces words of mourning, which she calls black tears. Since pluma in Spanish means both pen and feather, flight and writing can be related with a play on the same word. Pluma in turn represents the whole wing, and the wing contributes to an image of flight. First Dream, for example, identifies intellectual striving and boldness with Phaeton’s mythological failed flight in Apollo’s chariot.

In the area of religious drama, Sor Juana wrote three plays of the type called an auto sacramental, a one-act play performed during the feast of Corpus Christi. Her best known of these is The Divine Narcissus. Although performed for Corpus Christi, the theme of the Eucharist is very often not central to the action of an auto. These plays, derived from medieval religious plays, were often performed with much pageantry and elaborate costumes. All of Sor Juana’s three autos were introduced with prologues called loas. The loa before The Divine Narcissus portrays an Aztec ceremony in which Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, was broken apart and eaten—a clear parallel to the Christian Eucharist.

Sor Juana’s most personal works are the poems that address the price of her intellectual distinction. One of her most famous asks why the world hounds her and what harm is done if she chooses to fill her mind with things of beauty rather than worry about outward, physical beauty. She was certainly well aware that being a woman attracted gushy, condescending praise, as well as harsh criticism, for her intellectual accomplishments. In one poem, she wonders whether European readers are too willing to see perfection in her work because a woman who writes well is so unusual, such a special case. Whether criticized or praised, Sor Juana surely experienced the isolation of a woman who was not living within the accepted sphere.

The Divine Narcissus

First produced: El divino Narciso, c. 1680 (first published, 1690; English translation, 1945)

Type of work: Play

This poetic drama presents a series of allegorical tableaux in which Human Nature reveals her search for Christ in the form of Narcissus.

The Divine Narcissus, based in part on the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, is considered Sor Juana’s masterpiece of religious theater. The characters are all allegorical. The divine Narcissus...

(The entire section is 2449 words.)