Other Literary Forms
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is better known for her poetry and one celebrated prose work than for her dramatic output. Though Sor Juana wrote more than four hundred poems—including sonnets, romances (eight-syllable lines with assonance in even lines), redondillas (four eight-syllable line verses with an abba rhyme pattern), décimas (ten eight-syllable line verses rhymed abba-ac-cddc), and villancicos (church carols)—her fame rests on a relatively small number of poems; she is probably best known for her sonnets. Although her poems are Baroque in style, many of them are beautifully lyric and clear; they frequently treat the subjects of love and disillusionment.
Primero Sueño (first dream), her long poem of almost one thousand lines, is in imitation of Luis de Góngora y Argote’s Soledad primera (1613; First Solitude, 1964). In this dream narrative, her soul ascends to heavenly exaltation, but then descends to devote itself to scholarly pursuits and methodical knowledge. It has been described by the critic Francisco López Camara as “a hymn to the awakening of the spirit of investigation or research, and an unsuspected forerunner of the poetry of the eighteenth century Enlightenment.”
Her most famous prose work, Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz (1700; reply of the poetess to the illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz), written March 1, 1691, is invaluable for the light it throws on Sor Juana’s life. In 1690, she had written a criticism of a sermon by the famous Portuguese Jesuit priest Antonio de Vieyra. The Bishop of Puebla was so impressed by it that he had it printed and then wrote her praising the work but suggesting that she limit herself to theological discussions and avoid secular matters; he signed the letter “Sor Filotea de la Cruz.” Sor Juana’s lengthy prose reply provides a wealth of biographical information concerning her material existence as well as her mentally tortured life.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is regarded as the most important writer of colonial Latin America. Daughter of a Basque father and Creole mother, she inherited physically from both continents. This heritage was enhanced by broad religious and secular study and development, so that she was a literary fusion of Spain and her native Mexico.
Seventeenth century Spain was the heyday of the Baroque, and it is in this vein that most of Sor Juana’s writings were couched. Yet her style is not stilted, nor even as intricate in many cases as that of her master, Góngora, nor of the dramatic author Pedro Calderón de la Barca, many of whose writings she imitated. She demonstrated extraordinary skill in handling Baroque conventions, infusing her delicate language with feminine vision and sensitivity. This sensitivity and poetic beauty won for her the title among her contemporaries of “the tenth muse”; she is considered the last great lyric poet of Spain and the first great poet of America. Many of her sonnets and shorter lyric poems are distinguished by their transparent clarity and exquisite beauty; she stands out as the supreme poet of her time in Castilian Spanish.
Sor Juana spent most of her life within the confines of the convent, although the nun had previously enjoyed courtly life in the viceroyalty of Mexico. Her yearning for knowledge and her acute interest in secular matters did not, however, discourage her devotion to the religious life; she was neither a reformer nor a critic. Her writings display a spirit in conflict: an awareness of, and attraction to, both the religious and the secular. Both her poetic and dramatic works frequently express encontradas correspondencias (triangular antitheses) wherein A loves B, but B does not reciprocate; C loves A, but A does not love C. This structure is exemplified in her famous romance in which the poetess loves Fabio, who does not love her; and Silvio loves her, but she does not reciprocate his love. At times her penchant...
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