Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

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"This painted lie you see" is a poem by Mexican nun Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana. Juana Inés was a poet and philosopher who became a nun in the Hieronymite order of New Spain. The poem's major theme is the transient nature of material objects on Earth, particularly the human body. The other prominent theme of the poem is the dichotomy between the flesh and the soul. Juana posits that the body and the spirit are two necessary components that make up the human being. However, she argues that the flesh is merely the physical architecture that soul resides in, and that the essence of all living things is the spirit, which is immortal. The body will disintegrate after death, but the spirit will continue its existence in the realm of the divine. The title of the work refers to the analogy that Juana uses in the poem; it states that the physical body is merely a corpse dressed in beautiful clothing and accessories. After death, the corpse will become dust. This is a reference to the Bible's statement that all humans came from the earth (i.e., clay, dust, ashes, etc.) and will return to the earth once our physical form deteriorates.

The other major theme of the poem is the realist and materialist view of mortality. Other poets—especially the Romantics and those from William Shakespeare's time—would add a poetic philosophical "loophole" to mortality, such as believing that love will transcend death, or one's legacy will outlive one's physical existence. Instead, Juana views death as a biological and natural process and believes that humans can only "transcend" death by continually living in spirit form. This idea reiterates the concept of the body-soul duality, in which the latter of the two continues existence after leaving its "shell." Another theme worth noting is the warning against vanity. The title itself questions human nature's habit of beautifying the body with beautiful clothing, painted fingernails, makeup, and jewelry. The poet believes that all of these efforts to satisfy the ego is futile, since the body that is being decorated will one day rot.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

Sor Juana, a Mexican nun in the Roman Catholic Order of Saint Jerome, has her eyes on God and the spiritual realm, and she wants to give moral instruction to her readers. Although God and a judgment day are never mentioned in the poem, the poet tries to warn her readers that the world of the flesh is transitory; the most beautiful body is merely a corpse dressed in flimsy clothing. She remembers and recalls for the reader the biblical statement that humankind is dust and shall return to dust.

In many poems of the seventeenth century, especially in Elizabethan England, poets addressed this same theme, but they often found a way to escape death’s power: Love helped the memory of someone to endure, or art ensured the immortality of the person who was honored in a poem or painting. As Shakespeare said, “As long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this [the poem] and this gives life to thee.” Sor Juana offers no such hope. In fact, the world of art is simply a realm of deception and trickery, a place for syllogistic reasoning. The only truth lies outside the human sphere. In other poems, she makes direct reference to the spiritual realm, but here it is only inferred.

Many critics have pointed out the debt Sor Juana owed to Luis de Góngora y Argote’s poem “Mientras por competir con tu cabello” (“While in competition with your hair”), which was written in 1582, more than one hundred years before her poem. There are many similarities: Sor Juana’s Sonnet 145 and Góngora’s poem both follow the Petrarchan sonnet conventions; they have the same rhyme scheme, abba, abba, cdc, dcd; they share the same theme about the inevitability of death; and, most remarkably, Sor Juana imitates (or steals?) the closing phrasing of Góngora’s poem: “se vuelva . . ./ en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada” (it turns into earth, into smoke, into dust, into shadow, into nothing). What makes Sor Juana’s poem amazing, however, is not the similarity between her poem and Góngora’s, or the fact that the music in her poem is more effective, but the subject and focus of the poem. Góngora addresses a woman and comments on her vanity, her obsessive concern with her beautiful lips, hair, neck, and face; Sor Juana addresses herself and, by implication, the reader. The fact that she is commenting on her own portrait, on her own eventual disintegration into dust, gives her poem tremendous power. She is a greater teacher than Góngora because she faces her own mortality; this gives her greater credibility when she invites the reader to face his or her own demise.

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