The Poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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4. Playing with form

To fully understand Sor Juana's work, it is necessary to understand something of the literary concerns of her time, and the way in which she plays with those concerns. Some of the main terms associated with the literature of Sor Juana's time are:
      1. Gongorismo
      2. Culteranismo
      3. The Baroque
Gongorismo is a literary style named after the famous Golden Age Spanish poet Luis de Góngora. Sor Juana very much admired his work, and her great poem "Primero sueño" is in some senses a homage to Góngora's "Soledad primera".

Culteranismo is virtually synonymous with gongorismo: the style involves extreme complexity of imagery and metaphor, with neologisms and archaisms. In many ways it is a feast of language, an excess of the signifier over the signified, and it is one aspect of ...

The Baroque: this term is widely used to describe the music and literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and denotes a style in which an exuberance of detail represents a celebration of the signifying material of the work of art, be it wood, stone, paint, word, or sound.

It should now be possible to use some of these ideas in our discussion of Sor Juana's poems and their manipulation of literary form.

Poem 61 "Que pinta la proporción hermosa de la Excelentísima Señora condesa de Paredes" provides a very good example of a number of these concerns. The poem has a distinctive formal feature: it is written entirely in lines that commence with esdrújulas. These are words which are stressed on the antepenultimate syllable (three syllables from the end), and they are a relatively rare word form in Spanish (the technical word for them in English is "proparoxytone"). Examples are círculo, pólvora, fórmula, sílaba, but let's look at how Sor Juana uses them (these are the first four stanzas of an eighteen-stanza poem -- do not worry about the complex meaning of the words at this stage, just read it for its sound and let the images wash over you):

Pinta la proporción hermosa de la Excelentísima señora condesa de Paredes [. . .]
Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato,
Lísida, de su angélica forma:
cálamos forme el sol de sus luces;
sílabas las estrellas compongan.
    Cárceles tu madeja fabrica:
Dédalo que sutilmente forma
vínculos de dorados Ofires,
Tíbares de prisiones gustosas.
    Hécate, no triforme, mas llena,
pródiga de candores asoma;
trémula no en tu frente se oculta,
fúlgida su esplendor desemboza.
    Círculo dividido en dos arcos,
pérsica forman lid belicosa;
áspides que por flechas disparan,
víboras de halagüeña ponzoña.
[. . .]
The poem was probably written as a tour de force, a piece of verbal pyrotechnics designed to elicit the response "¡Vaya inteligencia!", and indeed it is extremely clever. Apart from the esdrújula form, clearly delighting in the rhythm and sounds of the words for their own sake, the poem sets up, in true Baroque style, a series of more and more elaborate images, similes, and metaphors, to describe the beautiful Lísida (Lysis), whose portrait is supposedly being "painted" by these lines. Many of these images push the bounds of similarity and comparison, threatening to swamp the "portrait" with improbable images. Many of the images are, indeed, comments on the poem's image-making process (its troping activity), and this time let's read with the emphasis on the meaning of the images (look at the translation if you need help):
Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato,
Lísida, de su angélica forma:
cálamos forme el sol de sus luces;
sílabas las estrellas compongan.
    Cárceles tu madeja fabrica:
Dédalo que sutilmente forma
vínculos de dorados Ofires,
Tíbares de prisiones gustosas.
    [. . .]
    Cátedras del abril, tus mejillas,
clásicas dan a mayo, estudiosas:
métodos a jazmines nevados,
fórmula rubicunda a las rosas.
    Lágrimas del aurora congela,
búcaro de fragancias, tu boca:
rúbrica con carmines escrita,
cláusula de coral y de aljófar.
May Heaven serve as plate for the engraving
portraying, Lysis, your angelic figure;
may the sun turn its beams into quills,
may all the stars compose their syllables.
    Your skein of locks is as a prison-house,
a Cretan labyrinth that twists and curls
in webbings of golden Ophirs,
in Tibbars of fair prison-cells.
    [. . .]
    Your cheeks are April's lecture halls,
with classic lessons to impart to May:
recipes for making jasmine snowy,
formulas for redness in the rose.
    In your mouth Aurora's chill tears
are kept in a many-scented vase;
its rubric is written in carmine,
its clause penned in coral and pearl.
Translated by Alan Trueblood

Just looking at the vocabulary of the poem, there are many words to do with form, method, style, writing -- some eighteen in all (e.g., retrato, forma, cálamos [=quills], sílabas, compongan, triforme, transforma, fórmula, cláusula, etc.). These suggest that the poem is as much about the act of portraying Lysis as it is about the countess herself.

Perhaps even more interesting than this emphasis on form is the imagery of labyrinths and prisons that runs throughout the poem. Words associated with prison and fixing are: cárceles, dédalo (labyrinth), prisiones, confinantes, congela, aprisiona, Tántalo (Tantalus, imprisoned in Hades), clausura. It is as if the very attempt to fix the image of Lysis in words represented a kind of imprisonment, with the beloved caught both in the labyrinths of poetical language and in the prisonhouse of desire.

While I have looked at this poem in terms of its play with form, issues of gender are also subtly hinted at. Addressing the beloved as Lísida (Lysis) clearly places the poem within the rhetorical conventions of Golden Age love poetry, but those conventions now threaten to become a subtle prison. It is the woman who is trapped within an incarcerating linguistic system, fixed and represented, but somehow lost behind the elaborate symbolic system. Moreover, the lines which absurdly compare the beloved's cheeks with a University Classics lesson are not just rhetorical play: Sor Juana was acutely aware that women were excluded from the lecture halls of the University (she declared in her famous letter that from an early age she had been aware of this as an injustice). To force the comparison between female beauty and the seats of learning from which women were excluded is to create a jarring image which must call into question the conventional assignments of femininity and aesthetics, masculinity and knowledge, as well as call into question the very modes of representation that depend on such a system.

Poem 126 is a simpler, but very intense, version of the ideas presented in the previous poem:

En un anillo retrató a la señora condesa de Paredes; dice por qué
Este retrato que ha hecho
copiar mi cariño ufano,
es sobrescribir la mano
lo que tiene dentro el pecho:
que, como éste viene estrecho
a tan alta perfección,
brota fuera la afición;
y en el índice la emplea,
para que con verdad sea
índice del corazón.
Note the ambiguity of the word sobrescribir here: the poem and/or portrait (for the poem claims to be a miniature painting on a ring, of the type that lovers might have sent to each other when separated by long distances) is an over-writing, a writing in excess, which threatens at the same time to overwrite or expunge that which it would express -- her affection and love. The theme of this poem clearly illustrates the baroque idea of excess -- here writing or painting as an excess of the signifier, an overflow which does not 'fit' the body.

topYou should now be able to do for yourselves similar analyses for poems 127, 102, and 195.

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© Geoffrey Kantaris