The Poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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6. Illusion and reality

A central thematic concern of much of Sor Juana's poetry is that old chestnut of the Golden Age: the role of Art in exploring the boundaries betwen illusion and reality, dream and waking. We see this in one of the most famous poems (152 "Verde embeleso de la vida humana") in which she describes life in paradoxical terms as "sueño de los despiertos intrincado" (a waking dream of twists and turns). In another poem (102 "Décimas que acompañaron un retrato enviado a una persona"), a portrait sent to a beloved person (of ambiguous gender) explains the feelings of the "original" woman who sent her:
A tus manos me traslada
la que mi original es,
que aunque copiada la ves,
no la verás retratada:
en mí toda transformada,
te da de su amor la palma;
y no te admire la calma
y silencio que hay en mí,
pues mi original por ti
pienso que está más sin alma.
                              [. . .]

The copy has received so much of the original's "soul" that the woman who sent it has been left as nothing but an empty husk, and the supposedly "inanimate" copy is left to try to feel the intense emotions caused by the presence of the beloved, or, perhaps, the intense pain of slighted love. In this beautiful and delicate love poem, in which the identity of the addressee kept a close secret, Sor Juana calls into question the primacy of original over copy, of reality over art, of the empty presence of the body over the full, emotionally charged world of art, the imagination, and the intellect. Incidentally, when you read the poem in full, note the clever play of pronouns (e.g., "él" for "el original") which throws a veil over the gender of the sender and the addressee.

Yet once more there is a difference between Sor Juana's use of the theme of illusion and reality and the contemporary idea, based on the theological conceit that this world is but a dream in comparison to the reality of the afterlife. Sor Juana sees dream itself, notably in her most substantial poem "Primero Sueño", as an intellectual construct. Although the mind is fogged by the vapours of sleep, it nevertheless continues its labour of trying to understand the total system of the universe. The mind reads the world as if it were a book, and indeed in the famous letter "Respuesta a Sor Filotea", Sor Juana declares that when once a mother superior prohibited her from using her library, she turned instead to 'reading' the physical phenomena of the world around her, trying to understand the principles that produce motion, or even turning cooking into a form of chemistry. As Octavio Paz puts it, the world, for Sor Juana, is a hieroglyph, and if there is one central theme of the "Primero Sueño", it is this attempt to topread the universe as if it were a book. The 'soul' -- by which Sor Juana almost always means the intellect -- is an unstoppable machine computing the universe, a free spirit soaring beyond the confines of the material body, beyond the limits imposed by birth, gender, and place.

7. Sexual difference

On this point, I would like to return to the contention I made at the beginning on the question of sexual difference and sexual indifference. Throughout her work, Sor Juana makes continual pleas for her writing not to be read in terms of conventional feminine stereotypes. Poems 48, 146, 147, 92, 322, 312, and 316, all contain, in different ways, this plea.

Yet there is always a slight hesitation. Some of her poems reject the 'mask' of femininity with vehemence, as in the "Primero Sueño" where she writes of a flower that it is "preceptor quizá vano | --si no ejemplo profano-- | de industria femenil que el más activo | veneno, hace dos veces ser nocivo | en el velo aparente | de la que finge tez resplandeciente" (the flower shows up the vanity, or flaunts the feminine duplicity, of that coating of poisonous material in women's makeup which adds further noxiousness to that of an already deceptive appearance - trans. Trueblood). On the other hand, in the "Respuesta" Sor Juana revives a long-buried tradition of women writers and philosophers from classical times through to the sixteenth century, and in some of her late Villancicos, written at a time when she was under great pressure to renounce her books and dedicate herself to a life of silent prayer and simple 'good deeds', she vindicates St Catharine of Alexandria as a proto-feminist heroine along with other biblical women who stood up to a male hierarchy, even though she had to pay the price of her life. In the following poem, for example, note how the list of famous women's names creates a genealogy of forebears for St Catharine, a genealogy that is specifically feminine:
Raphael, St Catharine of Alexandria
Raphael, St. Catharine of Alexandria, 1508
National Gallery at London


Maitines de Santa Catarina de Alejandría, Oaxaca, 1691, Villancico Primero
              [. . .]

Coplas    Sosiega, Nilo unduoso,
              tu líquida corriente;
              tente, tente,
              párate a ver gozoso
              la que fecundas, bella,
              de la tierra, del Cielo, Rosa, Estrella.
                  [. . .]
                  Más venturoso ahora
              de abundancia de bienes,
              tienes, tienes
              la que tu margen dora
              Belleza, más lozana
              que Abigail, Esther, Raquel, Susana.
                  La hermosa Catarina,
              que la gloria Gitana
              vana, vana,
              elevó a ser Divina,
              y en las virtudes trueca
              de Débora, Jael, Judith, Rebeca.
                  No en frágil hermosura,
              que aprecia el loco abuso,
              puso, puso
              esperanza segura,
              bien que excedió su cara
              la de Ruth, Bethsabé, Thamar y Sara.
                  [. . .]

The wavering in Sor Juana's work between a rejection of the conventional-feminine ("woman" as a man-made category which we saw in Poem 48) and a revindication of femininity as separate and unique, is perhaps best illustrated by comparing two poems which she writes about the rose, one in the Courtly tradition, and one towards the end of her life. In both poems, the rose is equated with femininity, but in fundamentally opposed ways.

The first is Poem 147:


En que da moral censura a una rosa, y en ella a sus semejantes

Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura.
    Amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo ser unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura.
    ¡Cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida
    de tu caduco ser das mustias señas,
con que con docta muerte y necia vida
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas!

The tone of this poem is in one sense highly conventional: the rose becomes a symbol of the vainness of femininity (the rose is morally censured as an example to "her fellow kind"), and teaches, by her death, the fleetingness of vanity. Note, nevertheless, how Sor Juana subtly works in some of her main preoccupations: the metaphors applied to the rose in the first stanza involve teaching and learning, so that the flower is virtually transformed, in the poem, into a didactic instrument.

Contrast this with the complete transformation in the meaning of the rose symbol in one of her last poems, No. 316. This is another poem dedicated to St Catharine, and is an account of her martyrdom. Patron saint of philosophers and scholars, St Catharine is believed to have been an extremely learned woman of noble birth, converted to Christianity by a vision. She protested against the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Maxentius in the early fourth century, and converted all the pagan scholars he sent to convince her of the error of her beliefs (Sor Juana is also said to have outwitted the scholars of the University of Mexico, when the Viceroy ordered a contest to test her intelligence). The Emperor ordered that St Catharine be put to death on a great spiked wheel (the Catharine wheel), which collapsed at her touch. She was then beheaded. In this poem, it is for her knowledge and learning as a woman that St Catharine is persecuted, and there is no doubt that Sor Juana is using the story as a coded account of her own persecution for similar reasons:

Maitines de Santa Catarina de Alejandría, Oaxaca, 1691, del Villancico Quinto
Estribillo:      Venid, Serafines
                    venid a mirar
                    una Rosa que vive
                    cortada, más;
                        y no se marchita,
                    antes resucita
                    al fiero rigor,
                    porque se fecunda
                    con su propio humor.
                        Y así, es beneficio
                    llegarla a cortar:
                    ¡venid, Jardineros,
                    venid a mirar
                    una Rosa que vive
                    cortada, más!

Coplas    Contra una tierna Rosa
              mil cierzos conjuran:
              ¡oh qué envidiada vive
              con ser breve la edad de la hermosura!
                  Porque es bella la envidian,
              porque es docta la emulan:
              ¡oh qué antiguo en el mundo
              es regular los méritos por culpas!
                  De girantes cuchillas
              en el filo, aseguran
              a un aliento mil soplos,
              a un solo corazón inmensas puntas.
                  Contra una sola vida
              tantas muertes procuran;
              que es el rencor cobarde,
              y no se aseguraba bien con una.
                  Mas no ve la ignorante,
              ciega, malvada astucia,
              que el suplicio en que pena,
              sabe hacer Dios el carro donde triunfa.
                  Cortesana en sus filos
              la máquina rotunda,
              sólo es su movimiento
              mejorar Catarina de fortuna.

                  No extraña, no, la Rosa
              las penetrantes púas,
              que no es nuevo que sean
              pungente guarda de su pompa augusta.

We have come a long way from the vain Rose of Poem 147. This Rose as symbol of femininity is defiant: she defends herself -- as she has always had to do -- with piercing barbs, and the fact that she is cut down only serves to increase her stature. In perhaps the most defiantly feminist statement of her work, Sor Juana claims that the Rose "se fecunda con su propio humor" (fertilizes herself with her own moistures). This statement implies not only that St Catharine, through her martyrdom (her "cutting down") has grown stronger, but, far more radically, when the Rose is read as a symbol for femininity, it implies a total rejection of the man-made model of woman as childbearer for the male. It is a profound rejection of the masculine sexual economy which defines women as fecund vessels for the male seed, and revindicates a separate femininity that would exist for and of itself.

Knowledge in the seventeenth century bore a masculine sign. Sor Juana understood very early (she says so in the "Respuesta") that to enter into the world of topknowledge she would have to dress up as a man, reject some part of herself, turning it neuter or abstract. Yet, as this poem shows, she never gave up fighting in her own work for the rights of women to have access to knowledge, as women, not dressed up as men.


© Geoffrey Kantaris