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    painting of old books on a shelf

    The Vow She Kept

    The seventeenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was the first great poet of the Americas.

    By Rhina P. Espaillat

    January 21, 2023
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    • Michael Nacrelli

      I'm curious if Arden can name some of these neglected poets. If not, maybe they're not great.

    • Arden

      By saying she is"the first great poet of the Americas," are you including indigenous poets that preceded her, or that they were not "American?"

    I count Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695) among my most significant literary predecessors. An interesting word, predecessor, and Sor Juana is everything the usage demands of her: one who precedes, as in time; ancestor; one who gives advance notice of change and of others to come; harbinger; precursor.

    Born in Mexico as the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain out to “make it” in the New World and his illiterate but practical Creole mistress, the future nun, poet, dramatist, and gifted intellect was a harbinger of the thoroughly mixed race that would come to populate Central America. Mirroring her identity, she incorporated into her work the legacies of Spain and its patchwork history of invasions and powerful foreign influences (including Muslim and Hebrew) as well as the rich brew of native peoples of the New World, and finally the cultural gifts of Africa. Later, as a nun, her dramatic writing for the church and for the crown often featured work in non-Hispanic languages, celebrating her locale along with distant Europe.

    painting of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz seated at a desk

    Miguel Cabrera, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, oil on canvas, ca. 1750.

    Thanks to the impressively rich library gathered by her mother’s prosperous and book-loving Creole father, the future Sor Juana began early to satisfy – or attempt to satisfy – a hunger for knowledge that never left her. In fact, this love of learning was a strong factor in her decision to avoid marriage and family life so she could devote herself to investigating as much as possible of this world while also serving the demands of the next. She took a vow to that effect.

    Another interesting word, vow, defined as an earnest pledge to perform a specific thing, or behave in a certain way in keeping with the values of a given moral position or religious belief. The beginning of Sor Juana’s eventual difficulties arose, at least partly, from the double vows that guided her every act: yes, the observance of her faith and service to the institution that allowed her the privacy she longed for. But also – and much earlier in her life – the need to learn, and not only theology but every branch of knowledge. She enjoyed music and science in particular, but not exclusively: there were languages to learn, and so much else! She displayed her intellect with a joyful ease that delighted the viceroy’s court but became an irritation to many others in the male-dominated, traditional upper class unaccustomed to educated women, and in the church hierarchy, which mistook her intellect for ambition and pride.

    Sor Juana devoted herself to investigating as much as possible of this world while also serving the demands of the next.

    Despite her reputation and the praise earned by her books, which were proudly published by her friends at court and justly admired in Spain and the Spanish empire in the Americas, Sor Juana eventually became the target of criticism, slander, and suspicion. One written attack by a member of the church hierarchy, published and signed with the name of a fictitious nun, even advised Sor Juana to spend less time on the reading and writing of worldly literature and more on the sacred texts that should be a nun’s proper concern.

    Sor Juana replied with what may be the world’s first feminist manifesto. Though couched in humility, courtesy, and gratitude for the concern and advice of which she feels unworthy, the Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Philothea, “Lover of God”) mounts a powerful defense of every woman’s right to a formal education, as well as of the publication of the writing of women, the respect due to the female intellect, and the capacity of women to excel at more than household duties and to exert authority with the same ability as men.

    Inevitably, the Respuesta tightened the noose of disapproval closing around her. Despite the loyal defense of her admirers at court and elsewhere, the threat of censure from the Inquisition eventually forced Sor Juana to leave her writing, undergo penance, and sell her books, musical instruments, and scientific paraphernalia (with the proceeds to go to charity). She agreed to spend the rest of her life attending to her fellow nuns, at that time suffering the effects of a plague, which she caught and died from at the age of forty-seven.

    Most of her unpublished works have disappeared, and even her published work underwent a loss of interest for a time. But Sor Juana has never gone completely out of favor. This is due in part to the fervor of her loyalty to the scattered human family, and particularly to the undervalued “others” with their stubborn gifts of art and thought, passion and humor. She has also remained apposite through the wit and grace of her own language, the musical playfulness of even her most solemn, despairing, or scathing work. Her vow to teach women to use their voices has not gone unfulfilled.

    The poems that follow, with my English translations, will say more about Sor Juana, and say it better than anything I could add about the first great poet of the Americas. But then, proud as we are of her, she is more than “one of ours.” She belongs to the world.

    Contributed By RhinaEspaillat Rhina P. Espaillat

    Rhina P. Espaillat, a bilingual poet, is winner of numerous prizes including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Richard Wilbur Award, and (twice) the Howard Nemerov Sonnet award.

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