The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

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“This afternoon, my love,” from the group of poems “De Amor y de Discreción” (“Of Love and Discretion”), is a classical sonnet. It is composed of an envelope-rhymed octave followed by an ababab sestet—embodying, according to the rules of the sonnet, “the statement and the resolution of a single theme,” here given in the caption “She Answers Suspicions in the Rhetoric of Tears.” This description establishes that a woman in love is pleading with a jealous lover.

Although all her love poems were commissioned, and it is therefore impossible to tell whose poetic “voice” is speaking to the reader, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prefers to speak in the first-person singular (the “she” of the caption refers to herself in an ironic distancing effect) but to emphasize the second person, the one to whom the speech is addressed. By utilizing this strategy, the poem pretends to deal with a particular case but in fact deals with the universal significance of that case.

Sor Juana was the most learned person in New Spain, but she was highly conscious of the limits of intellect and reasoning. She may here, following her elder contemporary, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, be asserting the superiority of the “reason of the heart” over the “reason of the mind,” but one cannot be quite sure. As she does frequently, she starts out in this poem resigned to the powerlessness of arguments to overcome irrational feelings such as jealousy. Consequently, she wants her lover “to see her heart” directly. This gesture of baring herself, of allowing the other to see her intimate being passing from rigidity to melting (“liquid,” “undone,” “molten”), may or may not have erotic connotations. Sor Juana is a master of the indeterminate.

Balancing such oppositions as words and reasoning versus heart is her favorite, and typically Baroque, stylistic device; in her case, testimony to the lifelong struggle between feeling and intellect, fantasy and reason, carnal love and love of God. The heart is traditionally considered the seat of love, and from it all power derives. When arguments failed, “Love came to the help of my intentions” (a literal translation) and achieved “what seemed impossible” by means of a magic potion: tears “which my melting heart distilled in copious drop” (translation by Frank J. Warnke, Three Women Poets, 1987).

In the sestet, she urges her lover to drop all foolish doubts and arguments, using—tongue in cheek—the rational “argument” that emotion, or irrationality, is the ultimate “proof”: “Since thou hast seen and touched a liquid rare—My molten heart caught up between thy hands.”

Sister Juana is extremely modern—one might even say deconstructionist—in her ironic inversion of word content: “Rhetoric” is the Aristotelian “art of persuasion,” which means well-wrought arguments, articulate words. The “rhetoric of tears” is the revenge of the inarticulate, the triumph of anima over animus. This triumph is staged, however, by a supremely lucid anima.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

Quintessentially Baroque, this poem contains in a nutshell the spirit of the period: its penchant for theatricality, trompe-l’oeil techniques, and playful forms masking metaphysical anxiety. Using linguistic devices, Sor Juana produces a seemingly light-hearted disclaimer of her own—supposing that the poetic voice is her own—sentimental involvement.

Having spent her later adolescence at the court of the viceroy of New Spain before entering first a Carmelite then a Hieronymite convent, Sor Juana was superbly versed in European literature and philosophy, including ancient Greek, and she was a master of Baroque literary forms. Her Spanish thus suffers little in translation; she is a catalyst of “intertextuality.” This poem brings to mind the archetypal Baroque poet, John Donne, with whose work Sor Juana may have been familiar.

Forms—particularly the illusion-creating devices and mirror effects of Baroque poetry—are hardly dissociable from their content, especially in Sor Juana’s work, since formal and stylistic prestidigitation was so well suited to Sor Juana’s temperament, which was both profoundly serious and coquettishly playful.

Her love poems are modern in the sense that they are, as it were, “written under erasure”; that is, she is pulling the rug from under her own statements, leaving the erasure and the not-quite-erased statement side by side to form an indécidable (something that is indeterminate or undecidable). Jacques Derrida might count her among his spiritual ancestors: Sor Juana was besieged by ontological doubts that she saw reflected in language, which she viewed as an unreliable expression of truth. She was certainly familiar with Descartes’s “systematic doubt.” Hence the frequency of the inbuilt disclaimer: When she speaks of dolor (sorrow) and her “melting heart,” one is ready to take her word for it. Yet would a person so unself-consciously abandoning herself really so self-consciously rejoice in her own strategy (“rhetoric,” “intentions”)?

As her choice of the restrictive sonnet form attests, Sor Juana, for all her pyrotechnic virtuosity, exemplifies the Baroque ideal of controlled exuberance. All of her poems aspire to a harmony of movement, to a balance of opposites either of which would run wild if it were not restrained by a masterly formal will. Polarity creates tension—male/female, intellect/feeling, sacred/profane—and Sor Juana uses the poetic means of balanced opposition to turn tension into intensity, only to dissolve it into a sleight of hand of grace and wit. Fiction and its illusion-creating devices form the essence of Sor Juana’s kind of reality—an open-ended one that ceaselessly mirrors its own mirror images.

While in other poems Sor Juana creates original metaphors—and “Primero Sueño” (“First Dream”), her only noncommissioned and longest poem, is an example of the most esoteric symbolism—here she does something that is perhaps even more sophisticated: She deliberately uses clichés, infusing them with new semantic energy by means of unusual associations, thus triggering new images. The heart becomes a distillery. Amor (love) and dolor (sorrow) are stripped of their mawkishly sentimental connotations and become dramatis personae, helping agents: Dolor poured the tears; amor came to the “help of my intentions.” The supreme ironist “proceeds masked”: She knows that the reader is aware that she is not using these naïve clichés naïvely; they are so obviously banal that they warn the reader to stay alert.