Dear Common Readers,
That’s right, I am fawning like a fan girl over Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Go borrow or buy a copy of her Selected Works at once. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to finally read Sor Juana’s work but I am grateful that I did. I only wish I had known about Sor Juana’s writings when I was in high school.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works translated by Edith Grossman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) is worth the price for the Respuesta alone, but the entire book is a gem. Sor Juana’s poetry is witty, clever, imaginative, and often deeply moving. Her spirited, pointed arguments are thought-provoking and inspiring.
As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking what a shame it was that Virginia Woolf did not have access to an English translation of Sor Juana’s writing. Sor Juana’s work embodies so many qualities that Ms. Woolf longed to see from women writers.
Indeed novelist Julia Alvarez compared Sor Juana with Ms. Woolf’s fictional Judith Shakespeare in her introduction to Sor Juana’s Selected Works. This is a fitting comparison since Sor Juana was born just forty years after William Shakespeare’s death. Ms. Woolf imagines Judith Shakespeare, William’s fictional sister, ran away to London but, though a gifted writer, could not find a place in the London theatre. Instead Judith found herself seduced, pregnant, and abandoned. Finally, driven mad by gifts she could not put to use, Judith killed herself in Ms. Woolf’s account. In contrast
…Sor Juana managed to get herself to Mexico City, be invited into the viceroyal court, pursue her studies, and write works celebrated throughout the Spanish–speaking empire, a big part of the world back then…Hers was the astonishing case of a poor, illegitimate, colonial female, to boot, who turned around the meanness of her situation and became the literary star of her time. (p. xi-xii)
Female lineage was as important to Sor Juana as it was to Ms. Woolf. In her defense of her studies, Sor Juana made a list of learned women from the Bible, Ancient Greece and Rome, and the early Christian Church who were revered and respected. This list runs for three pages and Sor Juana referred to even more learned women later in the letter. Contrasting this with Ms. Woolf’s longing for a missing tradition of women writers nearly 300 years later makes me see a new value in education. Highly-educated Sor Juana was completely aware of her place in a long line of educated women thinkers and writers and used that lineage to claim legitimacy for her own studies and writings. Meanwhile Ms. Woolf, who was denied formal higher education, was unaware of the rich history of literary women who proceed her. Both Sor Juana and Ms. Woolf seemed to be aware of the importance of predecessors to show us what is possible. Is this why women were denied education for so many centuries in so many parts of the world — to keep them in a subservient position by denying them knowledge that women have always contributed more to the world than just housework?
Not that Sor Juana would disparage housework. Indeed, in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea, Sor Juana states
…but what can we women know but kitchen philosophies? As Lupercio Leonardo so wisely said, one can philosophize very well and prepare supper. And seeing minor details, I say that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more. (p. 185)
(Perhaps 21st-century feminists should use this argument to persuade men to take on an equal share of the housework.)
Like that of Sappho before her, much of Sor Juana’s writings center on women’s culture. Sor Juana painted a vivid picture of the friendships and camaraderie among women in her convent in the Respuesta. Also like Sappho, Sor Juana often wrote about unrequited love for a woman. In both cases it is difficult to know whether this is purely poetic convention or an expression of the poet’s own personal emotions. Either way, the result is witty, beautiful, often moving poetry. I especially liked the wordplay in Décima 102 in which the poet speaks in the voice of a portrait:
She who is my original
has forwarded me to you
and although you see her drawn,
you will never see her withdrawn…
and these moving lines from Sonnet 186:
…know that no one but Laura commands here;
and she, abashed, departed and sped away,
leaving me to die for you, no one but you.
It is evident even in the Selected Works that Sor Juana wrote in many styles and on many subjects. She wrote not just love poetry and religious poems, but poems in honor of births, christenings, deaths, and public figures whom she admired. Sor Juana’s work is witty and often moving. She made clever use of mythological, historical, and religious symbolism and allusions in her work.
It’s important to remember that Sor Juana was probably the first internationally famous Mexican woman writer. Mexican national pride is a recurring theme in her work. In Ballad 24, written for the christening of the vicereine’s son, Sor Juana spoke of the glory and ascendancy Mexico would achieve over Europe when the boy grew up to rule the country. She spoke again of Mexican national pride in the prologue to her allegorical religious play Divine Narcissus in which the characters Occident and America are depicted as Aztecs in ceremonial clothing.
I’m afraid I may have made Sor Juana’s work sound stuffy. It is not. She was witty and amusing as well as learned and impassioned. Check out her epigrams. She wrote of a drunken braggart that his royal ancestor “more than the king of swords / must have been the king of cups.” (Epigram 94, p. 39-40) When a hypocrite insulted her over her illegitimate birth, she fired back that her mother didn’t give her as many fathers to choose from as his mother did. (Epigram 95, p. 40)
Sor Juana was also the first published feminist writer in the New World. Women’s education and male double standards are important themes in her poetry and prose. Ballad 2 wrestles with the idea that too much knowledge without understanding is a bad thing for men and women. Redondilla 92 takes on the male sexual double standard for women:
Who carries the greater guilt
in a passion gone astray:
the woman, beseeched, who falls,
or the man who begged her to yield?
or which one merits more blame
although both deserve our censure:
the woman who sins for pay
or the man who pays to sin?
The poet concludes by advising men to “Love them for what you make them / or make them what you can love.” (p. 33-36)
Her feminism found its fullest expression, though, in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Answer to Sister Philotea). It is not difficult to see why Sor Juana’s Respuesta got her in trouble with the Catholic Church officials of her day. She wrote this letter in 1691 when the Inquisition was still active. Indeed, Sor Juana mentioned it a few times in her letter. An awareness of the presence of an Inquisitor in Mexico City was clearly in her mind when she stated that she avoided writing on theological subjects to avoid accidentally committing heresy.
This seems to have been the intent of the Bishop of Puebla (Don Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz) when he initiated the correspondence. Sor Juana wrote the initial challenge of Father António Vieira’s sermon at the bishop’s request. He then published it without her permission or even her knowledge. Then, posing as a nun named Sor Filotea, the bishop wrote a letter to Sor Juana to chastise her for her presumption as a woman in writing it and to admonish her to confine her writing and studying to religious subjects.
Sor Juana’s reply is brilliant. She began with flattery and an apology but even within the apology, she turned it around on Sor Filotea, offering as proof of her religious studies and writing the very critique that Sor Filotea found so objectionable. She went further in her defense by pointing out she wrote it at the request of someone else. She drew upon her religious beliefs to support her right to study all subjects, further proving that she has indeed devoted herself to studying sacred as well as secular texts. She also argued that it was her duty to God to use the talents and gifts which had been bestowed upon her. Next she argued that one must study all fields of secular knowledge in order to properly understand the Bible and gave examples of allusions to mathematics, music, and architecture in the Bible. Further she argued that women should be educated so that they can teach their daughters and thereby avoid any overfamiliarity between male tutors and their young female students. She also gave examples of Church approval of learned women in the past.
What probably angered the bishop and other Catholic Church officials were passages like this:
…it is obvious that this does not apply to all women but only to those whom God has favored with special virtue and prudence, who are mature and erudite and have the necessary talent and requisites for so sacred an occupation. And this is true not only for women, who are considered to be so incompetent, but for men as well, who for the simple fact of being men think they are wise… (p. 189)
Then there are the passages in which she put her finger on what was really bothering the bishop: the worldly acclaim that her poetry received in both Spain and Mexico.
In truth, señora, at times I begin to think that the one who excels — or is made to excel by God, Who alone can effect this —is received as a common enemy, because it seems to some that this person usurps the applause they deserve or blocks the admiration to which they aspire, and so this person is persecuted.
That politically barbarous law of Athens, by which whoever excelled in gifts and virtues was exiled from the republic to keep him from tyrannizing public liberty with those gifts, still endures and is still observed in our day, although the motive of the Athenians no longer exists; but there is another one, no less effective although not as well founded, for it seems a maxim of the impious Machiavelli, and that is to despise the one who excels because that person discredits others. This occurs, and has always occurred. (p. 174)
How I wish I had read this letter when I was a bookish honor-roll student. It might have made high school easier to bear.
I enjoyed this translation very much. Edith Grossman explained in her introductory notes that she prefers to sacrifice rhyme to preserve the rhythm and meaning of the original poems. Still, I found myself wishing that she had found a way to make the rhyme schemes work. Any student of sonnets knows that they are supposed to rhyme and I definitely felt that the poems lacked a little something without the rhymes. This is just a quibble, though, as the poems are entirely enjoyable in this English translation. Ms. Grossman also took great care to use her footnotes to explain any puns and wordplay that are dependent on the original Spanish wording to make sense. I only wish I could read Spanish fluently so that I could read Sor Juana’s complete works. For now I hope that someone will translate Sor Juana’s complete works into English.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has at long last taken her rightful place in my own personal canon, but she deserves more. Sor Juana’s writings belong not only in the literary tradition of women writers but in The Canon of Great Literature as well.
Your sister reader,