She-Poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the most important poet in the America’s before Whitman & Dickenson

Portrait by Fray Miguel de Herrera (1700-1789)
Portrait by Fray Miguel de Herrera (1700-1789)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), a Catholic nun of the Order of Saint Jerome, born an illegitimate child of mixed race (Criolo/Creole), lived during the time when Mexico was a part of the Spanish empire. She was a writer, a playwright and a poet. Self-educated and hungry for learning, she established her educational goals when she was quite young.

These three famous quotes of hers are telling:

“I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less.”

“One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”

“…for there seemed to be no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning…”

In 1989 the Mexican poet, diplomat and Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz wrote in The Traps of Faith that Sor Juana was influenced by Spanish writers of the Golden Age and the Hermetic tradition, especially the works of her contemporary, the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. Paz felt that Sor Juana’s most formidable poem, Primero Sueño (First Dream) is a representation of a desire for knowledge through hermetic symbols. He concludes that Sor Juana’s work was the most important produced in the Americas until the 19th-Century arrival of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was brilliant, independent and nonconforming. She was a feminist before feminism. She was at the forefront of Mexican (v. Spanish) literature and is an icon of the Mexican national identity. Her home town of San Miguel Napantla was renamed Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her honor. While the people of the United States have snatched Freida, Sor Juana – though loved by many of us – seems to remain relatively unscathed by cultural appropriation.

I Approach and I Withdraw

I approach, and I withdraw:
who but I could find
absence in the eyes,
presence in what’s far?

From the scorn of Phyllis,
now, alas, I must depart.
One is indeed unhappy
who misses even scorn!

So caring is my love
that my present distress
minds hard-heartedness less
than the thought of its loss.

Leaving, I lose more
than what is merely mine:
in Phyllis, never mine,
I lose what can’t be lost.

Oh, pity the poor person
who aroused such kind disdain
that to avoid giving pain,
it would grant no favor!

For, seeing in my future
obligatory exile,
she disdained me the more,
that the loss might be less.

Oh, where did you discover
so neat a tactic, Phyllis:
denying to disdain
the garb of affection?

To live unobserved
by your eyes, I now go
where never pain of mine
need flatter your disdain.

– Juana Inés de la Cruz

© 2016, Jamie Dedes; Illustration and poem in the public domain. Source of translation unknown.