Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a self-taught scholar, poet and Hieronymite nun. She was born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana near Mexico City. She was the illegitimate child of a Spanish Captain, Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, and a Criollo woman, Isabel Ramírez. She was raised by her Mother and her Mother’s family, her father not a presence in her life.
Her abilities as a savant were evident immediately. She learned how to read and write at the age of three. By age five, she reportedly was accomplished in math and learning biology. At age eight, she composed a poem on the Eucharist. She spent her childhood and adolescence hiding in the chapel to read her grandfather’s books from the adjoining library, something that was forbidden to girls. By 12, she had mastered Greek logic, and at age thirteen she was teaching Latin to young children. During this time she also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote poems in the ancient language.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote about her constant wish as a young woman to be allowed to further her education. In 1664, at age 16, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz went to live in Mexico City. She asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a male student so that she could enter the university. Her Mother denied her repeated requests, and not being allowed to do so, she continued her studies privately. She came under the sponsorship of the Vicereine Leonor Carreto, wife of the Viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. The viceroy, wishing to test the knowledge and intelligence of this 17-year-old, invited several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting, during which she had to answer, unprepared, many questions on various scientific and literary subjects. Her breadth of knowledge astonished the assembled group and her reputation was made in Mexico City. As her accomplishments grew she garnered fame throughout New Spain. She declined several proposals of marriage and in 1667, she entered a monastery of the Carmelite nuns as a postulant as a way to remain independent and continue learning. She chose not to enter that Order permanently as a result of its strict rules. In 1669, she entered a monastery of the Hieronymite nuns which allowed her more freedom to continue her intellectual pursuits.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was an astonishing intellect and a unique figure for her time. She championed the idea of women’s education taught by women scholars as a path to a more balanced and complete society. Her poetry is notable for its strident intensity on a far range of topics, including erotic lesbian love. Although writing what we would consider same-sex love poems to a benefactor or friend was not uncommon in that period by men or woman, Sor Juana Ines de la cruz made it very clear the depth of her love for the vicereine. Her unconventional nature and intellect became a threat to the male power structure. She conducted a salon from her chambers in the monastery that drew important thinkers of her day in Mexico City in what could be considered equivalent to the intellectual salons of 20th century Paris.
Not surprisingly, she drew critics who felt threatened by her feminist writing. In response, she wrote a letter, in which she defended a woman’s right to education. In response, the Archbishop of Mexico joined other high-ranking officials in condemning Sor Juana’s “waywardness”. By 1693, Sor Juana seemingly ceased writing rather than risk official censure. However, there is no evidence of her renouncing her devotion to working privately, though she agreed to penance. At the end of the her life, she relented from the constant political pressure and sold all her books, an extensive library of over 4,000 volumes, and her musical and scientific instruments as well. She died after ministering to other nuns stricken with plague during an epidemic in April, 1965.
Unfortunately, portions of her writing and poetry was lost, but some was saved in the library of the vicereine. Here are a few snippets of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s brilliance in her own words translated into English.
by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
(Excerpt – final lines of her nearly 1,000 line poem)
Finally, Dusk could see, at last
a vision of the fugitive pass,
and — with her zeal on the mend
from ruin forces a second wind–
and she, in that half globe where the Sun
withdrew the sheltering garrison
rebelling again, makes up her mind
to seize the crown a second time,
while in our hemisphere a skein
of golden Sunlight shines again,
and with its fair judicious light
distributes equally and shares
with all things visible their hues,
and with this restoration makes
the exterior senses operate
more certainly, as daylight breaks
on the illumined World and I – awake.
Translated by Elwin Wirkala
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz response to her critics:
“I do not study in order to write, and even less to teach—which, in me, would be colossal arrogance—but rather only to see if by studying I can be less ignorant. This is my answer and this is what I feel. God graced me with of a gift of an immense love for the truth)—is that since the first light of reason dawned on me my inclination toward letters was so intense and powerful that neither reprimands by others, of which I have had many, nor self-reflection, of which I have done not a little, have been sufficient for me to stop pursuing this natural impulse that God put in me.
God Almighty knows why and for what purpose. And he knows I’ve asked him to snuff out the light of my mind and leave only what’s necessary to keep his commandments. Some would say that any more is too much in a woman, and some even say that it is harmful. The Almighty also knows that, since my request failed, I have tried to bury my intellect along with my name and to sacrifice all this only to the one who gave it to me. For no other reason I entered a religious order even though its duties and fellowship were anathema to the unhindered quietude required by my studious intent…..
Therefore, if the evil lies in verses being used by a woman, we have already seen how many women have used them commendably. Then, what is the problem with me being one? Of course, I confess my baseness and my base, vile nature; but I maintain that no one has ever seen an indecent poem of mine. Moreover, I have never written anything of my own volition, but rather at the request or directive of others. As a result the only thing I recall writing for my own pleasure is a little piece called The Dream.”
Excerpts from Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz
You Foolish Men
by Sur Juana Ines de la Cruz
You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;
if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.
You fight their stubbornness,
you say it was their lightness
when it was your guile.
In all your crazy shows
you act like a child
who plays the bogeyman
of which he’s then afraid.
With foolish arrogance
you hope to find a Thais
in her you court, but a Lucretia
when you’ve possessed her.
What kind of mind is odder
than his who mists
a mirror and then complains
that it’s not clear.
Their favour and disdain
you hold in equal state,
if they mistreat, you complain,
you mock if they treat you well.
No woman wins esteem of you:
the most modest is ungrateful
if she refuses to admit you;
yet if she does, she’s loose.
You always are so foolish
your censure is unfair;
one you blame for cruelty
the other for being easy.
What must be her temper
who offends when she’s
ungrateful and wearies
But with the anger and the grief
that your pleasure tells
good luck to her who doesn’t love you
and you go on and complain.
Your lover’s moans give wings
to women’s liberty:
and having made them bad,
you want to find them good.
Who has embraced
the greater blame in passion?
She who, solicited, falls,
or he who, fallen, pleads?
Who is more to blame,
Though either should do wrong?
She who sins for pay
or he who pays to sin?
Why be outraged at the guilt
that is of your own doing?
Have them as you make them
or make them what you will.
Leave off your wooing
and then, with greater cause,
you can blame the passion
of her who comes to court?
Patent is your arrogance
that fights with many weapons
since in promise and insistence
you join world, flesh and devil.
Translation – Copyright © 2004 by Michael Smith. Shearsman Books Ltd.