Juana Inés de la Cruz: a sketch
Gradually the figure of this seventeenth-century
Mexican, the last great poet of the Golden Age of Spanish verse, is becoming
better known to readers in the English-speaking world.
At the age of three Juana taught herself to read by following her elder sister to school and looking on through the window. By the age of eleven Juana had read all the books in her grandfather's great library. At thirteen, she was summoned to the viceroy's court, where a number of sages (some say forty) from the Royal University grilled her for hours to determine if the astonishing rumours of her learning were true.
Such became her reputation that envoys fresh from Europe would stop at her convent even before presenting their credentials to the Viceroy. In her own lifetime her status was mythic: throughout the Spanish Empire, she was variously known as the "Tenth Muse," "Phoenix of America," "Sum of the Ten Sibyls," "Pythoness of Delphi."
In 1695, Juana Inés de la Cruz died nursing her sisters as plague broke out among the women of her convent. Proto-feminist and slave-owner, philosopher and theologian, fabled beauty and nun …-- for twenty-five years she had championed a woman's right to a life of the mind. Defying her confessor, the chief censor for the Holy Inquisition, she defended also a nun's right to compose exquisitely sensuous and lucid poetry.
For three centuries, poets, scholars -- and in our century, psychoanalysts, feminists (and at least one novelist) -- have asked themselves the same maddening questions. How could a woman who towered above her contemporaries in talent and intellect, a universal genius to whom the same inquisitors who threatened and persecuted her would often bring their theological essays for correction, a giant who could mock and tease and cajole and dazzle, who from a convent in ultra-conservative Mexico could begin her famous poem, "Fools, you men – so very adept at wrongly faulting womankind…", how could she suddenly surrender, sign a pitiful statement of contrition in blood, then fall silent?
A voice for the ages – passionate, yet exquisitely lucid. What gestures and insights, what beauty and agonies does the silence of those last two years conceal from us, steal from us? What might it be brought yet to say? Speak, silence.
She was only forty-six.
Sor Juana herself characterised her pursuit of letters as a voracious hunger, a "black beast." In a now-famous thesis, Nobel-laureate Octavio Paz described her as a political prisoner of the Church, and likened the startling self-denunciations at the end of her career to those of the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s. Paz has also called her the greatest versifier of the Spanish language, whose best work ranks with Donne's and prefigures Mallarmé.
In her struggle with celebrity and her own rebelliousness, in the grace of her poetry and her rigorous pursuit of knowledge, she resonates for modern readers, while making her time resonate with the baroque in our own.
Links to related online resources
Samplings from the poetry of Sor Juana in Hunger's Brides.