Juana Ramârez y Asbaje was born between 1648 and 1651 near Mexico City. Although her mother was illiterate, young Juana had access to her grandfatherÍs extensive library and taught herself the forms of classical rhetoric, as well as the language of law, literature, and theology. Because women were not allowed to study at the University in Mexico City, she continued her program of self-education, first as lady-in-waiting at the Spanish Viceroy’s court, and then in the convent, which she entered in 1668 to be able to pursue a quiet, intellectual life. In a patriarchal age, however, her confessor and even the Archbishop of Mexico condemned her writing. Nevertheless, Sor JuanaÍs talent earned her the patronage of two ViceroysÍ wives, and poetry, drama, and prose continued to flow from her pen. Her love poetry, in particular, was viewed as scandalous writing for a nun, as the following selection may illustrate. Probably her most notable work was 1690Ís The Answer (La Respuesta), a rebuttal of her clerical critics that justifies her place as a seventeenth century feminist. Unfortunately, when she ventured into theological argument, Sor Juana unleashed such a storm of ecclesiastical condemnation that she ceased writing, selling her library and musical and scientific instruments in 1692. Three years later she was dead, having fallen victim to an epidemic disease contracted while caring for her similarly stricken sisters. Nevertheless, her place as a major figure of Hispanic literature was already assured. Indeed, in her own time, she was known as the ñMexican Phoenix,î her work rising as a flame from the ashes of religious disapproval. What reasons do you think a nun might have for writing such a poem? Is this work personal, or purely literary?
This afternoon, my dear, when I spoke with you,
In your countenance and in your acts I saw
That with words I could not persuade you,
So I desired that you see into my heart;
And Love, which aided my intent,
Overcame that which seemed impossible,
Since amidst the tears that sadness unleashed,
My heart, undone, dropped within me.
Enough, then, of harshness, my dear, enough:
Neither torment yourself more with these tyrannous doubts
Nor let vile distrust oppose your peace of mind
With foolish shadows or vain evidence,
Since already in flowing humor you saw and held
My helpless heart between your hands.
Translated by Susan Swan
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