Sor Juana is widely considered one of the finest writers and greatest intellectuals of seventeenth-century Hispanic culture. She pursued knowledge with great fervor and evidenced such genius that, in spite of scant formal education, she had achieved renkown as a gifted writer and thinker by adolescence. Best known for her love lyrics and the long poem "El sueno," she was hailed as "the Tenth Muse of Mexico." Though she lived in a period when writing and scholarly pursuits were considered unseemly occupations for women, she was able to produce works that clearly established her as one of the best female poets, and possibly the best Hispanic poet, of the seventeenth century.
Born out of wedlock to a Spanish father and Creole mother, Sor Juana was raised in the village of her birth, San Miguel de Nepantla, near Mexico Cty. Exceptionally precocious, she began to learn to read at age three. She exhibited a passion for learning, asking her mother to dress her as a boy so she could attend the university in Mexico City. However, women at the time were barred admittance. She was tutored in Latin, the basics of which she quickly mastered. She acquired extensive knowledge in various fields during her teenage years by reading on her own, and began to write verse. She eventually attracted the attention of the viceroy, who brought her to court in Mexico City as a lady-in-waiting to the vicereine. Sor Juana was highly regarded at court for her beauty and talent, and was frequently asked to compose poems or dramatic pieces for various occasions; indeed, most of her total poetic canon consists of occasional pieces. Wishing to test her knowledge, the viceroy arranged to have forty of the city's scholars question Sor Juana, each in his own specialty. Proficient in moral and dogmatic theology, medicine, canon law, astronomy, advanced mathematics, and music, Sor Juana astonished them all; according to the viceroy, she defended herself "like a royal galleon assailed by small launches," greatly increasing her already lofty reputation. Not long afterward, in 1669, Sor Juana entered the convent of San Jerdnimo. The exact reason that Sor Juana took the veil is unknown and a matter of much speculation. What is clear is that she hoped the convent would prove a place where she could most completely give herself over to her studies. Still enjoying considerable renown, she continued to receive visitors and to write for both secular and church events. In time, though, Sor Juana became the focus of ecclesiastical disapproval. She was publicly chided for not paying enough attention to the study of Christ's teachings, and for preferring to study and write on secular subjects. After renouncing her studies, she begged forgiveness of the church and entered into public silence. Eventually she sold all the books in her large private library as well as her numerous musical and scientific instruments, giving the money she received for them to the poor. Sor Juana spent the last three years of her life engaged in her duties at the convent and in acts of charity for the poor of Mexico City. She died while ministering to the ill during an epidemic in 1695.
Although Sor Juana's poetry was influenced by both Luis de Góngora and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, it is generally considered to have transcended the ornamentation of her time. Critical interest has centered on very few poems, most particularly her longest poem, "El sueño" ("The Dream"), often called "Primero sueño" ("First Dream"). Her most celebrated work, "El sueño" describes through the form of a dream the soul's rising toward knowledge, employing extensively Sor Juana's knowledge of the sciences. The poem is very much in the baroque style, yet seems to foreshadow the Enlightenment in its scientifically oriented worldview. Interpretations of "El sueño"are diverse. It has been variously described as metaphysical, as a defense of the private viewpoint, and as a work that in outlook foreshadows modern Mexican nihilism. Regardless of interpretation, it is perhaps her most important piece, particularly because of her claim that it was the only work she composed on her own impulse rather than at the request of another.
Although she is usually remembered as a poet, Sor Juana wrote as much drama as she did poetry; her strength, in fact, is sometimes considered to lie in dramatic composition. She composed in numerous dramatic genres peculiar to Hispanic literature, writing mostly short pieces to function as introductions or interludes. But she also completed several longer dramas, modeling her work after the plays of Calderón. El divino Narciso (1690), partly based on the legend of Echo and Narcissus, is a sacramental play which, according to John Malone, "by a simple yet wonderful allegory [Sor Juana] weaves the fable of the pagan lover into a marvelous broidery of the life and passion of the Christ." Some critics consider El divino Narciso the height of Sor Juana's literary achievement. Another play, Los empeños de una casa (1683), is considered a fine example of baroque rhetoric in which Sor Juana successfully followed the formula of Spanish Golden Age comedy.
The facts surrounding the publication of Sor Juana's most-studied prose work, as well as the events that followed, are difficult to ascertain. In 1690 she was asked, perhaps by her friend the bishop of Puebla, to refute the points of a 1650 sermon by the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra. She did so, and her "respuesta," or "reply," was published, without her approval, along with a pseudonymous letter from the bishop (who signed himself "Sor Filotea de la Cruz") reproaching her for her habit of secular study. Sor Juana's largely autobiographical reply to this letter, entitled "Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz" (1692) defends her desire for knowledge and her course in life, arguing for the right of women to an education and the right of the individual to pursue a broad spectrum of knowledge. Though there are few extant prose pieces by Sor Juana, the "Respuesta" is widely viewed as exceptionally persuasive and well-written, and one of the finest essays produced in New Spain.
Sor Juana attracted the adulation of her contemporaries in Mexico and Spain for both her writings and her intellect. Virtually ignored afterward, her work has elicited increasing interest and acclaim since the end of the nineteenth century. Critics have shown intense interest in Sor Juana's philosophical outlook and in her decisions concerning the course of her life. Her readers have wondered about her personal motivations for entering the convent when her fame was at its height and for her later renunciation of study. Sor Juana has often been viewed as a mystic since studies of her work were revived a century ago, while some critics consider her thought Cartesian in its emphasis on discursive reasoning. Gerard Flynn has dismissed both ideas, however, claiming that the autobiographical statements of the "Respuesta" dispel any notions of mysticism. He has noted that her method of thought is clearly in the tradition of Scholasticism, citing her distrust of intuition and her confidence in the senses as a means to knowledge. Interpretations of Sor Juana are quite varied, but her work is now universally praised and her poetry is held to be among the best of her era.