EVERY few centuries a woman of poetic genius appears, who may de distinguished by three clear secondary signs: learning, beauty, and loneliness. Though the burden of poetry is difficult enough for a man to bear, he can always humble himself before an incarnate Muse and seek instruction from her. At the worst this Muse, whom he loves in a more than human sense, may reject and deceive him; and even then he can vent his disillusion in a memorable poem --as Catullus did when he parted from Clodia-- and survive to fix his devotion on another. The case of a woman poet is a thousand times worse: since she is herself the Muse, a Goddess without an external power to guide or comfort her, if she strays even a finger's breadth from the path of divine instinct she must take violent self-vengeance. For awhile a sense of humour, good health, and discretion may keep her on an even keel, but the task of living to, for, and with herself alone, will sooner or later prove an impossible one. Sappho of Lesbos, Liadan of Corkaguiney, and Juana de Asbaje belonged to this desperate sisterhood: incarnations of the Muse-goddess, cut off from any simple gossiping relation with their fellow-women, who either adored them blindly or hated them blindly, and from any spiritual communion with men on equal terms. Though a woman so fated cannot help feeling physical desire for a man, she is forbidden by her identity with the Goddess from worshipping or giving herself wholly to him, even if he desires to worship and give himself wholly to her. It is possible that Clodia was another of these unfortunates, that the harder Catullus tried to please her, the more despairingly she fought him off: playing the society harlot rather than consent to burn with him in a mutual flame.
Yet about Clodia little is known, and about Catullus no more than his poems reveal. Even the story of Sappho survives only in fragmentary form. We learn that she was early married on Lesbos to one Cercolas, a man of no distinction, and bore him a daughter; that her learning and inventive faculties were memorable; that she tutored girls of literary promise; that she rejected the advances of Alcaeus, the leading poet of his day; that she fled to Sicily from some unnamed trouble and, after an unhappy affair with one Phaon, a common sailor, "took the Leucadian leap": which implies some spectacular act of self-destruction. The interrelation of these bare facts remains obscure; yet it seems that a possessed woman poet will rather subject herself to a dull husband or ignorant lover, who mistrusts her genius and may even ill-treat her physically, than encourage the love of a Catullus or Alcaeus, which demands more than it is hers to give.
The story of Liadan is also fragmentary. She was a brilliant young Irish ollamh (or masterpoet) of the 7th century A.D., privileged to make semi-royal progresses from one great mansion to another, preceded by a peal of golden bells, and followed by a train of lesser bards and pupils. On one of these she went to Connaught, where the ollamh Curithir welcomed her to an ale-feast. After the long exchange of riddling poetic lore in Old Goidelic, customary on such occasions, he burst out suddenly: "Why should we not marry, Liadan? A son born to us would be famous." She was startled into answering: "Wait until my progress is done; then visit me at Corkaguney and I will come with you." He did so, only to find that Liadan, regretting her lapse, had meanwhile taken a religious vow of chastity. In despair and anger, Curithir took a similar vow, and when they went away together, as agreed, it was to the monastery of Clonfert, where Liadan insisted on placing herself under the spiritual direction of St. Cummin, a hard and severe abbot. Curithir followed suit. St. Cummin found them two separate cells, offering Curithir the choice of either seeing Liadan without addressing her, or addressing her without seeing her. He chose the second alternative; and Liadan consented to this arrangement. They were then each in turn allowed to wander around the other's wattled cell, until Liadan persuaded Cummin to grant Curithir greater freedom, of which she must have known that he would try to take advantage. As a result, he was banished from Clonfert, and sailed away to the Holy Land; but Liadan let herself die of remorse, because she had foolishly involved him in her ruin.
Unlike Sappho and Liadan, Juana de Asbaje was born into a society where she must have seemed as portentous as a talking dove or a dog which can do long division. Neither in Lesbos nor ancient Ireland had limits been set to a woman's learning. Sappho was no freak, but merely the best of several famous women poets. Liadan, to win her peal of golden bells, had passed the ollamh's twelve-year course in literature, law, history, languages, music, magic, mathematics, and astronomy --one of incredible stiffness-- and that a woman should so distinguish herself was not considered abnormal. In 17th century Mexico, however, the Church had gained such a stranglehold on learning and literature that women, doctrinally debarred from the priesthood, and despised as the intellectual and moral inferiors of their fathers and brothers, could nurse no aspirations beyond a good husband, many children, and a Christian death. Only at the Viceregal Court might a lady read poems or romances, and thus equip herself for the games of chivalry in which etiquette required her to assist the courtiers; but even so, a confessor always stood by to check all signs of vanity or immodesty.
Juana, born on November 12th, 1651, was the daughter of Don Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, an immigrant Vizcayan, and Doña Isabel Ramirez, whose father, the head of a family long established in Mexico, owned a substantial estate near Chimalhuacán, and seems to have been a man of some cultivation. Juana's mother, however, could neither read nor write and when she died, some thirty years later, it transpired that Juana and her two sisters had all been born out of wedlock: presumably because the father had left behind a wife in Spain. Though he seems to have legitimised the three of them before they grew up, it has been suggested that the shame of having been born a bastard encouraged Juana to excel as a poet, while it soured her against marriage; but this is mere speculation.
One morning, when she was three years old, her sister said: "Mother cannot have you about the house today. Come with me to school and sit quietly in a corner." Juana went...
...and seeing that they gave my sister lessons, I so burned with a desire to know how to read that, deceiving the teacher, as I thought, I told her that my mother had ordered her to give me lessons. She did not believe this, as it was incredible, but to humour me, she acquiesced. I continued to attend and she to teach me, not in mockery now, because experience had undeceived her; and I learned to read in such short time that when my mother (from whom the teacher had hidden the matter in order to give her the pleasure and receive the reward all at once) found out, I was already proficient. I, too, had concealed it, thinking that they would whip me for acting without orders. She who taught me still lives, God preserve her, and can testify to the truth... I recall that in those days I had the appetite for sweets and delicacies that is common at such an age, but that I abstained from eating cheese because I had heard it said that taking this made me dull-witted; for my desire to learn was stronger than the wish to eat, which ordinarily is so powerful in children.
At the age of six or seven, she pleaded to be enrolled at Mexico City University and, since the statutes barred women from taking the course, to have her hair cut and be dressed as a boy. When her mother laughingly refused, Juana took possession of her grandfather's library, which no punishment could deter her from reading; and when she found that the most desirable books were in Latin, mastered the elements in fewer than twenty lessons and, before she was eight, could read and enjoy Plato, Aristophanes, and Erasmus. Juana now made life so difficult for her mother that she was sent to her uncle's house in Mexico City, where she taught herself literature, science, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and languages. At the age of thirteen she was presented at Court by the uncle; there her exceptional talents, vivacity, and beauty --wide-set chesnut-coloured eyes, broad brow, quick smile, straight nose, determined chin, delicate fingers-- qualified her to be the darling and first lady-in-waiting of the Vicereine. For three years Juana took part in all the gallant diversions of the Viceregal Court, the cultural centre of the New World, and became its principal ornament, next to the regal pair themselves: studying every book that came to hand, and writing a profusion of court verse in Castilian, Latin, and Aztec--besides theatrical sketches, satires, verses of commendation and occasional trifles, some of them "highly seasoned"; and finding time for poetry of a truer and more personal kind. A great many well-born young men asked her hand in marriage, but she behaved with commendable discretion and refused their offers, though the Viceroy and Vicereine would doubtless have provided a dowry.
When she reached the age of sixteen, the Viceroy heard her decried as having only a smattering of knowledge, and therefore summoned forty learned men--university professors, theologians, philosophers, poets, mathematicians and historians--to examine her in their various subjects. He afterwards recorded with satisfaction:
Like a royal galleon beating off the attacks of a few enemy sloops, so did Juana fight clear of the questions, arguments and objections that so many specialists, each in his own department, propounded....
Father Calleja, of the Society of Jesus, her first biographer, asked Juana what impression this triumph, capable puffing up even the humblest soul to self-importance, had made upon her. She replied: "It left me with no greater satisfaction than if I had performed a small task of hem-stitching more neatly than my embroidery-teacher." About this time she first expressed a total aversion to marriage. Her motives have ever since been hotly debated. Father Calleja suggests that she recognised the glitter of Court life as empty delusion; never fell in love with a man; and soon realised that only service to God could give her lasting happiness. This is still the view of the Church, despite her plainly autobiographical love-poems, written at the age of sixteen. Este amoroso tormento que en mi corazón se ve, and Si otros ojos he visto, matenme, tus airados ojos; and the poems of disillusion which followed, especially the famous:
and the twoscorching [sic] farewell sonnets to Silvio, whom she hates herself for having loved so well.
Juana presently decided to become a nun, although, as she wrote later: "I knew that the estate implied obligations (I am referring to the incidentals, not the fundamentals) most repugnant to my temperament." In this course she was encouraged by her confessor, Father Antonio Nuñés de Miranda, to whom "she broached all her doubts, fears and misgivings." Her first attempt failed: after three months as a novice among the Barefoot Carmelites, her health broke down, and she withdrew on doctor's orders. Fourteen months later, however, she was well enough to enter a Jeronymite convent and in February, 1669, having completed a short novitiate, took the veil as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the name by which she is now generally known.
Father Antonio did not insist that she should abandon her studies and, since the Jeronymites were the most liberal of the Orders in 17th century Mexico, her cell soon became an academy, lined with books and filled with the instruments of music and mathematics. Juana learned to play several instruments, wrote a treatise on musical harmony, made a name as a miniaturist, became proficient in moral and dogmatic theology, medicine, canon law, astronomy, and advanced mathematics. Her library swelled to four thousand books, the largest in the New World, and it is recorded:
...the locutorio of the Jéronimas was frequented by many of the highest in Mexico, thanks to the renown of Sor Juana. She had loved solitude but [her presence] brought her many distinguished visitors. Not a Viceroy of that epoch but desired to know her and, from the highest to the lowest, they all consulted Juana on weighty affairs. A natural affability and graciousness made her lend herself with good will to these fatiguing visits.
Juana continued to write verses, though none for publication: mostly birthday and nameday greetings addressed to her friends at Court, dedications, epitaphs, commemorations, rhymed letters of thanks for books or musical instruments --all smooth, eloquent, and highly rhetorical. To these she added sacred sonnets, dirges, roundelays, carols, panegyrics of saints, lively allegories, and religious plays. She was also a famous cook and for ever sending her friends gifts of confectionery: almond rings, nuns' sighs (to use the politer phrase), cakes and puff pastry of every kind. Accompanying these went humorous verses, such as this:
Frequent balls, concerts, and ballad-recitals were given in the convent and patronised by the Viceregal pair who never failed to attend vespers there as an excuse for amusing and instructive conversation with the "Mexican Phoenix." It was an easy life, since no limit was put on the number of Indian serfs owned by the sisters; one convent of a hundred nuns had five hundred such serving-women working for them. Juana was unlucky, at first, to be under a jealous and narrow-minded prioress, at whom she once shouted in exasperation: "Hold your tongue, you ignorant fool!" The prioress complained to the then Archbishop of Mexico who, as an admirer of Juana, endorsed the prioress' complaint with: "If the Mother Superior can prove that this charge is false, Justice will be done."
Juana performed all the religious duties laid upon her, though not greedy of ecclesiastical advancement and, when on one occasion unanimously elected prioress, declined the honour. The gay times at the Convent seem to have ended with the Viceroy's term of office; but her "passion to know" remained as strong as ever, and this, she wrote, subjected her to more criticism and resentment than the massive learning she had already acquired. On one occasion a "very holy and candid prelate" ordered her to cease from her studies. She obeyed in so far as she read no more books...
...but since it was not within my power to cease absolutely, I observed all things that God created, the universal machine serving me in place of books.
During the three months of the prelate's continuance in office, she studied the mechanics of the spinning top, and the chemical reactions of convent cookery, making important scientific discoveries. Later, when she fell seriously ill, the doctors also forbade her to read, but
...seeing that, when deprived of books, her cogitations were so vehement that they consumed more spirit in a quarter of an hour than did four days' reading.
they were forced to withdraw their prohibition.
Juana's confessor, still the same Father Antonio, now tried to dissuade her from seeing and writing to so many friends and learned laymen, on the ground that this was irreconcilable with her profession; and when she would not listen to him, resigned his charge. Next, she was ordered by an unnamed superior to refute an admittedly unorthodox sermon preached by a famous theologian, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Vieira; which Juana did in a letter of such masterly argument, that when it was published (without her knowledge or permission) the most learned doctors of Spain and Portugal were highly diverted to find that this Mexican nun had completely demolished Vieira's thesis; and sent her profuse congratulations. But one old friend, the Bishop of Puebla, qualified his praises with the suggestion that the letter proved how sadly she had wasted her talents in writing shallow verses and studying irrelevant and profane subjects; instead, she should have devoted herself to the unmasking of doctrinal error, now so rife in Christendom. Juana, deeply offended, replied that she made no claim to academic distinction, had written the letter only because ordered to do so and, when she saw it in print, had burst into tears, "which never come easily to me." Then, rather than become a theologian, to the exclusion of all her other studies, she grimly sold her entire library for the benefit of the poor, together with all her musical and mathematical instruments; and submitted to the severest conventual discipline, which Father Antonio, returning in joy, unsuccessfully begged her to moderate. This spectacular event created such a stir that the new Archbishop of Mexico similarly sold all his books, jewels, valuables, and even his bed.
In 1695, some of the sisters fell ill of the plague, and Juana, though weakened by nearly two years of rigorous penance, set herself to nurse them; but presently caught the infection and succumbed. The Jeronymite records contain this sentence, scratched with Juana's fingernail dipped in her own blood--because she had renounced the use of pen and ink:
Immediately above will be noted the day, month and year of my death. For the love of God and of His Purest Mother, I pray that my beloved sisters, both those now living and those who have gone before, will recommend me to Him--though I have been the worst woman in the world.
Signed: I, Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Juana de Asbaje wrote true poetry before she was seventeen; but what of her heiress and successor, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? We can applaud the dazzling fantasy of Sor Juana's religious verse, its perfect sense of rhythm and sure balance of phrases, its essential clarity, which shames the interlaced extravagances of contemporary Gongorists, and the universality of knowledge displayed by the incidental references. Yet the appeal is almost wholly to the intellect. Juana never became mystically involved with Christ. She accepted Him as a theological axiom, rather than as the divine bridegroom whom St. Teresa knew, and of whom the medieval Irish nun wrote:
She was no longer the Muse of every Mexican gallant, though flatterers continued to call her "The Tenth Muse"; and as an intelligence she now functioned in a field which the ecclesiastics to whom she had promised obedience were always seeking to reduce; being forced to play a religious part in which she could not wholly believe, because it was repugnant to her temperament, yet at last playing it so successfully as at once to shame them and defeat her own ends. When she had sold her books and cut herself off from the world, the only solace left was the fellowship of her ignorant sisters, and even this seems hardly to have been an unmixed blessing:
It happened that among other favours, I owe to God an easy and affable nature and the nuns loved me for it (without taking notice, like the good people they were, of my faults) and greatly enjoyed my company; knowing this and moved by the great love I had for them--since they loved me, I loved them more-- there were times when they intruded somewhat, coming to me to console themselves and to give me the recreation of their company.
It was in no spirit of mock-humility that she described herself as the worst of women; writing the confession in hew own blood. She meant that, when she first took the Leucadian Leap by becoming a nun, it had not been into the sea of pure religion. Still keeping her intellectual pride, her thirst for scientific knowledge and her pleasure in profane authors, lay visitors and the minor pleasures of the flesh, she could remember what it had been to love and to write poetry; and her ancient powers still occasionally reasserted themselves, for instance in some of the songs, based on the Canticles, which enliven her religious play, The Divine Narcissus. Juana called herself the worst of women, it seems, because she had lacked sufficient resolution either to stick it out as Muse, or make a complete renegation in the style of Liadan.
Now, though both Liadan and Juana were young and famous women poets who took vows of celibacy and submitted to ecclesiastical discipline, it was Juana's Irishness, rather, that first led me to compare them. Juana not only combined Christian ethics with pagan emotion, and profound learning with easy lyricism, like the ollamhs, but had inherited their technique by way of the early medieval Latin hymns and the anti-monastic ballads of the Goliards. She too loved the short rhymed quatrain, and the internal rhymes of her Carol to St. Peter:
were in the purest Bardic tradition, like St. Bernard of Cluny's Rhythm, which begins:
Moreover, she excelled in satire of the scorching Irish sort that would raise blotches on the victim's face: her Lines to Sour-Faced Gila might have been written by the arch-ollamh Seachan Torpest himself, notorious for having rhymed rats to death. Perhaps Juana's Vizcayan blood was at work; an ancient tie of kinship and religion bound the Western Irish with the Northern Spanish--both peoples had worshipped the same pre-Christian Muse-goddess and the doomed hero Lugos, or Lugh, her gifted son.
Source/Fuente: Encounter I, no. 3 (December 1953): 5-13.
©The Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Project.