Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz World Literature Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 2449 words.)

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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 represents Christ. Human Nature appears as a woman searching for her lover, Narcissus. Echo represents fallen nature or evil and is accompanied by Pride and Self-Love. The play is written in verse and divided into five tableaux with fifteen scenes. Although there is little action, the play is notable for Sor Juana’s beautifully lyrical descriptions, as well as the imaginative use of two well-known stories.

In the introductory scene, Synagogue and Gentilism decide to stage a play in which revelation and pagan antiquity will be represented. Human Nature explains the imagery and announces that she must find a spring to cleanse her image, distorted by guilt, so that the Divine Narcissus can again recognize his image in her. Then Echo appears, telling of Narcissus’s rejection, which makes her wish to keep Human Nature from achieving a union with him. The second tableau portrays the temptation of Narcissus by Echo. In one of the best scenes of the play, Echo approaches Narcissus as a shepherd maid who pays in unhappiness for the gift of her great beauty. The association of unhappiness and beauty is a common theme of the period. The parallel is to Lucifer, the most beautiful of angels, who, in exile from God, was also the most unhappy. The temptation scene just as clearly parallels Christ’s temptation by the devil. The skillful meshing of biblical themes and pagan literature is characteristic of Sor Juana’s autos.

Human Nature appears, singing of her despair and longing for Narcissus in the style of the Song of Songs: “Worn out with searching for Narcissus,/ granting my wandering foot no respite.” Grace, sent by God, reveals the waters of a fountain that will cleanse Human Nature and that in their purity symbolize the Virgin Mary. Then, in the fourth tableau, Narcissus perceives the beautiful reflected image of himself and Human Nature at the same time and sings of his love: “What surpassing beauty is this,/ beside whose purest light/ the whole celestial sphere turns pale?”

Echo is defeated and can only repeat the last syllables spoken by Pride and Self-Love. The tableau ends with Narcissus expressing the terrible suffering of human love as he yields his spirit to death with the biblical words lamenting his abandonment by the Father. Although Human Nature grieves at first, she is assured that Narcissus lives and that she will be protected by the sacraments.

Sor Juana weaves biblical and pagan elements together to form a unique presentation of a religious theme. Octavio Paz rates it as one of the few autos having the mark of true poetry.

First Dream

First published: Primero sueño, 1692 (collected in A Sor Juana Anthology, 1988)

Type of work: Poem

The account of a dream remembered during waking hours tells of a search for knowledge that ends in disillusionment.

First Dream, Sor Juana’s longest and most ambitious poem, takes the form of a dream retold after waking in the morning. It focuses on a matter of great importance to her: the human desire to know and understand the world. The text demonstrates Sor Juana’s own extensive scholarship. It also showcases her poetic skill with images. Central to this work are the numerous images associated with sleep that are woven into her account: night contrasted with day, the dominion of sleep over human beings, sleep as a type of death, the deception of dreams. Sor Juana herself attached great personal significance to this work, and she makes special mention of it in her famous letter, The Poet’s Answer to the Most Illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz.

In the opening lines, the shadow of night reaches toward the stars, but its “frowning gloom” surrounds only the earth. Night is not able to put out the light of the stars, “splendid lights, forever free, aglow forever.” Sor Juana calls the shadow “pyramidal,” and her interest in pyramids is explored later in a more intellectual fashion as she discusses Homer’s ideas regarding pyramids. The shape reflects the ambition of the mind, mounting upward and attempting ambitiously to grasp the essence of life and the First Cause of creation. Throughout her text, Sor Juana makes use of rhetorical figures to illustrate the action of the searching intelligence. Other parallel images refer to daring flight, including the failed flight of Icarus, whose wings, held on with wax, melted when he flew too close to the sun.

The poem explores the effects of night and darkness, commanding every living creature to sleep. First the animals, then people, fall under the spell. Morpheus, an image of death, is all-powerful—ruler and peasant alike must give in and rest. As the soul frees itself of the body, it begins to contemplate Creation. Scientific references to the four humors and the workings of the body give way to intellectual flight, with references to Atlas, Olympus, and the pyramids of Egypt.

The soul then enters the upper sphere and tries to grasp the immense complexity of creation, but the sheer numbers of creatures and elements in the universe overwhelm the mind. Sor Juana then explores the mental processes of scholastic doctrine, taking up one thing at a time and dividing things into categories. She introduces representative features of the total system but finds her mind frustrated. Debating whether it is wise to try again, the soul is caught by the rising sun. Night gives way, in images of a military retreat. Human senses take over again, and the sleeper, identified as Sor Juana herself, awakes.

Although the ideas are deeply philosophical, the poem derives much of its beauty and subtlety of meaning through references to mythology and the scientific ideas of Sor Juana’s time. The verses describing the night and nature’s slow yielding to sleep are particularly beautiful. She uses the silva, with eleven-syllable and seven-syllable lines that occasionally rhyme but are often free in order and may not rhyme. Once the world has gone to sleep, Sor Juana’s soul explores the nature of human intellect. Since the life of the mind was so central to her identity, it is not surprising that this work had a special place in Sor Juana’s affections.

“Foolish Men”

First published: “Hombres necios,” 1700 (collected in The Answer: Including a Selection of Poems, 1994)

Type of work: Poem

Using logical argument, Sor Juana attacks men’s double standard.

Sor Juana’s reputation as an early feminist rests upon The Poet’s Answer to the Most Illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz and upon the poem “Foolish Men.” The poem is commonly known by its first two words, “Hombres necios,” which translate as “Foolish Men,” or by its first line, which translates as “foolish men, who accuse. . . . ” “Foolish Men,” a poem in defense of women, is among her best-known works. Written in a relatively frank and idiomatic tone, the verses seem strikingly modern. Clearly, Sor Juana had difficulty in her own life with the role assigned to women. Sor Juana’s poetry often portrays women as the more logical partners in battles of love with men. Her view of love is certainly not idealized; relationships between men and women are necessarily problematic, and love itself is an unreasonable emotion filled with tension and strife.

“Foolish Men” opens with a blunt accusation against men who are very good at blaming women for faults that men themselves have caused. Sor Juana argues for women, although she never refers to women as “we.” Her short verses, in the form of redondillas—stanzas of four lines rhyming abba—move forcefully through her logical argument. The content is easy enough to follow, and Sor Juana repeats her view in various forms of rephrasing. Men win over women’s resistance and then, becoming self-righteous, blame them for feminine frivolity. Furthermore, a woman cannot win. If she refuses her suitor, she is ungrateful and cold; if she gives in, she is lewd.

After establishing the problem, Sor Juana poses the question: Who is guiltier if their passion leads to sin? Her implicit answer is obvious. Her concluding verses challenge men to either love women as they have made them, or make them into whatever they would prefer. It is, after all, men’s pursuit that leads to women’s fall. Her final stanza speaks by her personal authority (“I well know . . . ”) of men’s arrogance. Contrary to the male view of women as the occasion of sin, she presents her own view of men as allied with the devil, the flesh, and the world.

While Sor Juana was not a feminist in the sense of an activist fighting in the public sphere for women’s rights, she was conscious of her position as a woman writer, and she did assert her right to develop her intellectual ability. “Foolish Men” confronts prejudice against women directly, but the logical and witty form of the poem puts it in the tradition of seventeenth century Baroque literature.

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