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...
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