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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

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As a sister in the order of Saint Jerome, Mexico’s Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana (1651–1695) became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. An exceptionally well-read woman for her time, Sor Juana wrote extensively about both mundane and spiritual matters, often insisting that the two were not actually separate. Before entering religious life, she had already become known for her writing and erudition.

Among the hundreds of sonnets Sor Juana wrote, Sonnet 145—often called “the painted lie”—is one of the most well-known. It encapsulates numerous themes that occupied her and often put her into conflict with her superiors. The poem is remarkable for its insistence on the limitations of mortality while offering no indication of the hope of the eternal life of the spirit. In form, it is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines in two quatrains and two tercets; it uses an abba, abba, cdc, dcd rhyme scheme.

Many commentators have noted marked similarity in form and themes to a 1582 sonnet by Spain’s Luis de Góngora y Argote. In his poetic commentary on vanity, Góngora concludes with reference to the idea of “dust to dust” as the ending of corporeal life; Sor Juana uses the same words to end her poem. One remarkable contrast in this apparent homage is her reversal of the theme. Rather than criticize a vain woman’s folly as the male poet does, she criticizes the falsity of the painted image. In that regard, she reminds the reader as much as herself of the ultimate futility of trying to outlast fate.

Throughout her poem, Sor Juana points out the misleading quality of any portrait. While it attempts to capture the sitter’s youth, it may remind them of the onslaught of “old age,” which all are powerless to arrest. Even to pretend otherwise is a kind of vanity that ultimately embodies the foolishness of all art rather than the supposed beauty of the subject. With the analogy of a “fragile flower” being blown away, she suggests that any effort at defense against death is futile. For everyone and everything, the end will be “nada,” “nothing.”

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

This poem appears in anthologies under three titles. It is most commonly referred to as “Este, que ves, engaño colorido,” or “This painted lie you see,” which is the poem’s first line. The original title, however, which is sometimes dropped, even in Spanish editions of the poem, is more complex. The purpose of the poem is explained in this title, which Alan Trueblood has translated as “She Disavows the Flattery Visible in a Portrait of Herself, Which She Calls Bias.” The poem is sometimes simply called Sonnet 145.

The poem, which focuses on a single painting, is written in a standard Petrarchan sonnet form: its fourteen lines are divided into two quatrains and two tercets. In Spanish, each line is composed of eleven syllables; this is known as a hendeca-syllabic line.

The first four lines, or quatrain, rhyme abba in Spanish and function as a complete clause. The poem immediately addresses a person, a “you,” who is looking at the painting that is the subject of the poem. The painting, which is a flattering portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz herself, is nothing more than a “painted lie” or a “cunning deceit of the senses” because the “exquisite beauty of art” functions, in fact, through “false syllogisms of color.” The poet seems to be suggesting that art lies.

The second quatrain, following the same rhyme scheme, continues the description of the painting and further explains the poet’s philosophical position. This portrait of the poet attempts to “triumph over old age and oblivion” by stopping the progression of time. Sor Juana believes that this type of flattery, which tries to exempt her “from the horrors of old age,” is both dangerous and false.

In the final two tercets, which in the original rhyme cdc, dcd, Sor Juana makes nine different statements about the painting. Each statement further develops the ideas that were begun in the first two quatrains; no violent shifts in perspective disrupt the focus of this poem. The painting, a “vain artifice,” is actually a “useless defense against fate.” Despite its attempt to preserve the beauty of the poet, the portrait is as powerful as a “delicate flower in winds.” Looking closely at the portrait, one can see what lies behind the “foolish effort” to preserve the poet’s physical features: The painting records what, in reality, is “corpse, is dust, is shadow, is nothing.” The poem ends not with the grandeur of art’s devices, but with a sobering thought about human mortality. Looked at long enough, the body reveals what the future holds—not permanence or an escape “from the cruelty of years,” but death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

Sor Juana draws the reader into this frightening poem by means of a simple direct address: “This colored deception that you see.” In Spanish, she uses the familiar form of the word you——and personalizes her invitation for the reader to see the world as she sees it. By removing herself from the poem, she convinces her readers that the thoughts in the poem are their own.

Many sonnets, including some by William Shakespeare, use an abrupt shift or turn in meaning, usually in the closing couplet or tercet, to surprise the reader. In Sor Juana’s sonnet, the idea of the poem is apparent from the opening quatrain, and it does not change; what alters is the syntax, or sentence construction, in the poem. The first and second quatrains, which are joined in their use of the same rhyme scheme and rhyming syllables, are composed of extremely complicated, almost convoluted clauses that slow the reader down. It is almost as if the reader were being forced to look closely at what lies behind the subtle beauty of the portrait. Once that has taken place, Sor Juana rushes the reader, in the final tercets, which are also joined by the repetition of their rhyming sounds, to the inevitable conclusion of the poem. All of the baroque descriptions culminate in the simplicity of her final line: This portrait of the artist reveals the vanity of worshiping the flesh, since everything ends in and “is dust, is shadow, is nothing.”

The syntax employed is joined with another basic technique to emphasize the bald, striking emptiness and horror of the final images. Throughout most of the poem, Sor Juana links each of her nouns with adjectives, usually adjectives that decrease the power of the nouns: “false syllogisms,” “delicate flower,” “vain artifice,” “decrepit zeal,” “foolish diligence,” and “useless protection.” The nouns whose denotations are already negative are allowed to stand alone: “oblivion,” “fate,” “old age” (one word in Spanish, vejez). When the reader arrives at the final line of the poem, the power of the words is emphasized because there are four unadorned nouns in succession—corpse, dust, shadow, and nothing; not even the indefinite article “a,” which preceded the five previous nouns, is used here. The language becomes sparse to emphasize the barrenness of the final images; adjectives and articles don’t belong in the empty world of death.

The writers of poems that talk about paintings usually create lush and imagistic surfaces in their poems. Sor Juana, in the first thirteen lines of this poem, provides only one image, a delicate flower in the wind, which really serves only as a symbol for the transitory nature of beauty. The rest of her language is extremely abstract: “deception,” “syllogism,” “oblivion,” “artifice,” “zeal,” and “flattery.” Once again, she subverts the reader’s expectations in the final line by providing four images: corpse, dust, shadow, and nothing. The flesh, the things of this world, do not really concern Sor Juana; it is the absence of flesh, the abstract realm of ideas, that is her obsession. The irony of the poem lies in the tremendous sensual appeal of the sound of its language; although its theme denies the importance of the senses, its rich, ornate music can have power only in this shadow world of the senses.