Sor Juana: Mexico’s Most Erotic Poet and Its Most Dangerous Nun

She was a woman who’d be extraordinary in any century. A look at the new translation of the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Who was the most erotic poet of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, when the quatrain reached its courtly zenith? Was it Sir Thomas Wyatt, who penned lines sick with longing—“Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind/But as for me, hélas, I may no more”—for his former paramour Anne Boleyn? Was it Shakespeare, in mad pursuit of a lovely boy and that voluptuous Dark Lady? Or was it the poet who wrote this phrase (so erogenous, so suggestive): “I shall not play the slenderness/Of your fine, exquisite torso/For the bend of your waist is as/Troubling as a trill in the song”?

The stanza, from a redondilla addressed to a “celebrated beauty” nicknamed Feliciana, is the work of the New World’s first great lyric genius, a glittering figure in the viceregal court of 17th-century New Spain. It is also the work of a woman—actually, of a nun—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Phoenix of Mexico and the celebrated Tenth Muse of the Siglo de Oro.

Like many luminaries of her time, she boasted an omnivorous mind, dabbling in secular humanism and the natural sciences and amassing a library that boasted 4,000 volumes, from Aristotle to Kircher. She was also an autodidact, an illegitimate girl from the provinces whose intelligence became the stuff of legend. While her name has almost disappeared from the history books (except in Mexico, where her face graces the 200-peso banknote), during her lifetime her fame straddled the oceans. In addition to her poetry—with its witty epigrams and haunting ballads—she composed riotous stage plays, mathematical treatises, musical arrangements, and social manifestos. Her “Response to Sister Filotea” is a Wollstonecraft-like defense of a woman’s right to education, while her “First Dream” serves up an ambitious paean to the glories and limits of the intellect, with its imagery evoking Plato’s cave, the winged Furies, and Icarus’s doomed flight.

A new sampling of Sor Juana’s poesy is just out from Norton, rendered into English by the esteemed translator Edith Grossman. From its sonnets that muse on mortality and decay to its possessive, lusty decimas, the book is infused with the chiaroscuro war between the mind and the body, enslavement and emancipation, ignorance and enlightenment. It also includes the “Respuesta” to Sor Filotea, which got Sor Juana in deep trouble with the Catholic Church and led to her signing a vow of silence in her own blood. While the tome offers no copies of the poems in the original Spanish, it does feature a handy guide to Sor Juana’s many erudite references, just in case you’ve forgotten your way around Parmenides and Boethius.

While it’s not strictly necessary to know about Sor Juana’s life in order to appreciate her opus, her story is so extraordinary that it risks eclipsing her creations. Born around 1651 in the shadow of the Popocatéptel volcano, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez was the third of six illegitimate children in a modest land-owning family. Her mother was illiterate, but she secured a tutor for both her sons and her daughters, and Juana could read by the age of 3. She devoured the books in her grandfather’s library, and as a 6-year-old, begged to cut her hair short and study at university like a man. Around the same time, she taught herself Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the central highlands, which she would later weave into her poems alongside mystic symbols from Mexico’s pre-Columbian past.

When Juana was 8, her father abandoned the family and the girl moved to Mexico City to live with her aunt. Her voracious thirst for knowledge—along with her blossoming beauty—soon made her into a local curiosity and as a teen, she joined the court of the Marquis de Mancera to be a lady-in-waiting for his wife, the vicereine. In a grand spectacle that made waves back in Europe, the vice-regent assembled a panel of learned men to test Juana’s knowledge of history, mythology, and literature; as he later noted, Juana sailed through the examination “like a royal galleon defending itself against a few rowing boats.”

Juana’s time at the court, with its extravagant pomp and flirtatious intrigues, was surely amusing, but within four years, she had turned to the Cross and entered the convent of San Jerónimo. Her reasons for choosing the nunnery remain obscure—perhaps she feared marriage (she claimed to abhor the idea), or perhaps she just knew that a dowry was beyond her family’s means. The religious orders were somewhat “repugnant to my nature,” she wrote, but they were “the least disproportionate and most decent thing” that might allow her to devote herself to the life of the mind.

Conditions at the convent were far from austere. Sor (“Sister”) Juana amassed a veritable cabinet of curiosities in her two-story apartment, stocked with rare books, gems, baubles, exotic objets dart, and—in the words of one contemporary—“musical and mathematical instruments, of which she had many, precious and exquisite.” She kept servants and, evidently, three slaves, and entertained academics and philosophers in an elite salon. She also wrote, copiously—plays, essays, and, after 1680, ardent love poems to María Luisa, the Condesa de Paredes and wife of the new viceroy. But like the Icarus of her poems, Sor Juana ended up flying too close to the sun. When María Luisa and her husband decamped back to Spain, the nun lost her powerful protectors and became a target for the church’s more vicious elements. In 1690, under the gender-bending pseudonym “Sor Filotea,” a high-ranking bishop circulated a private letter of Sor Juana’s, in which (at the bishop’s own behest) she’d criticized the sermon of a Jesuit priest. The ensuing furor over her impudence saw the Catholic hierarchy cracking down on her freedoms—she lost her library and her permission to publish, had to sell her precious scientific equipment, and signed her sanguineous confession: “Me, the worst of them all.” In 1695, still under an imposed silence, she died in a plague sweeping the capital.

For all the protections it afforded, the church—still enflamed by the zealotries of the Inquisition—would only tolerate Sor Juana’s spirit of independent inquiry for so long. What had once been her passageway to freedom, at least of the intellectual kind, eventually became her prison. How apt, then, that the cover image for Grossman’s book is a delicate birdcage. It is empty, the door swung open—perhaps the bird has already flown, or perhaps the cage awaits its next inhabitant. What was Sor Juana’s cage? The convent, obviously, but also the court—and even her unrequited longing for the elusive lady of her sonnets.

Love poems between aristocratic women were not uncommon at the time, as long as they stayed safely on the side of friendship. But Sor Juana’s verses hint of more dangerous infatuations. Her words are jealous, obsessive, intensely physical. They describe her beloved’s throat, her hips, her “finely composed” body. She broods on a portrait of her mistress, happy that it cannot say “you are not mine.” She sends a miniature of her own image to the court, envious that it will enjoy a proximity she will never attain. Back in the convent, she worships the ideal of unrequited passion—she is an eager slave, she writes, and “love, my lady, finds in me no resistance/for my exhausted heart he sets ablaze”—and her mind spills over with steamy imaginings: “Oh how mad I saw myself/in the ecstasy of your love/when even pretended your favors/could make me mad with delight!”

Coursing beneath the polished surface of the love poems is something deep, dark, and defiant. “Loving you is a crime/For which I shall never atone,” she tells Maria Luisa, who has written to Juana asking why her friend has fallen silent. “And more I cannot explain/but you, from what I did not say/will infer what I do not say.” Elsewhere, she tells her inamorata, “It does not matter if you elude my arms/my dear, when thought alone can imprison you.” Yikes. It’s unclear whether Maria Luisa’s carnal passions were equally aroused, but on some level she must have enjoyed the nun’s affections—back in Spain, she worked to help publish Inundación castálida, Sor Juana’s first book, thus cementing the poet’s reputation abroad.

The rapturous emotionality bursting forth from Sor Juana’s decimas call to mind another poetic soul sequestered away—Emily Dickinson, the self-appointed recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts, whose lyrical shards packed so much pent-up passion into a single word. For both writers, physical separation from the world (and from their unattainable love interests) served to heighten their fantasies and sharpen their longings. It may also have left them somewhat untethered, drifting in between their own lives and the eternal mysteries. There is an ethereal streak in the writings of both women, a place where centuries and space unhinge and death or God rushes in. We feel their strangeness when we read their words—they lived on a plane where few dare to tread.

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Perhaps this is why both poets remain so enigmatic, despite the fact that we have access to many of their personal letters, as well as their intimate poems. One gets the sense that they are wearing a mask to confuse their readers, and even to evade them. Dickinson did this as a game and a test—she loved riddles and turned herself into a riddle wrapped in her own lines. Sor Juana’s elusiveness had a more ominous source. As the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote in his 1982 biography of the nun, “her work tells us something, but to understand that something we must realize that it is utterance surrounded by silence: the silence of things that cannot be said. The things she cannot say are determined by the invisible presence of her dread readers”—the archbishop, the Inquisitors. “What cannot be said is anything that touches not only on the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church but also on the ideas, interests, and passions of its princes and its Orders.”

Sor Juana lived in a world where knowledge was uniquely dangerous—and impossibly enticing, at least for a voracious mind like her own. Most portraits of Juana, whether as a child or a grown woman, show her surrounded by books, all those precious specimens from her vast library. Paz tells us that she owned countless encyclopedias and manuals—on mythology, law, history, philosophy, theology. She read contemporaries like Cervantes, Quevedo, and the playwright Lope de Vega, as well as the ancients—Heraclitus, Democritus and Pythagoras all show up in her work. She was fluent in Spanish and Latin, and perhaps some Italian (she quotes Boccaccio on Petrarch), and devoured works on scholasticism, with its patron saint Thomas Aquinas, as well as Neo-Platonism, which introduced her to the “Egyptian mysteries.” Her love of learning was clearly as intense as her love for any man or woman, and it was this infatuation that dominated her life.

How sad, then, that her writings make scant mention the other great thinkers of her age. She gives no nods to the Humanists, like Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Erasmus, or Descartes. Paz thinks Sor Juana must have known about their works—he is less sure about her access to Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton—but her Counter-Reformation world “was a society oriented toward opposing modernity, not achieving it. It is incontestable that proscribed books were read in New Spain,” Paz writes, “it is also clear that very few arrived and that those few had to be read in secret—and, first and foremost, that no mention could be made of them.” Hers was “a culture of silences, reticences, charades and circumlocutions.”

Put another way: El clavo que sobresale siempre recibe un martillazo. As the Dominican author Julia Alvarez relates in her introduction to Grossman’s translation, this is what she heard from her mother—along with the admonition, “Don’t be a Sor Juana”—when she was growing up under Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror. The phrase means, “the nail that sticks out always gets hit by a hammer.” In a dictatorship where dissent could bring imprisonment, torture, and death, Alvarez says her mother had every reason to worry about a child who liked to argue with authority. It was a stifled atmosphere that thrived on intimidation and retribution—so reminiscent of the one in which Sor Juana lived out her days, and against which she eventually took a stand with her famous manifesto to Sor Filotea. In her letter, she wrote, “God has given me the gift of a very profound love of truth.” This love allowed her to soar to the heights of intellect, even as the censors of the Inquisition tried to keep her shackled in darkness. What did she see up there, glinting along the mountaintops of the mind? As she writes in her “First Dream”: “a thousand golden flows (lines, I saw of brilliant light)… guides to the cerulean expanse of the heavens.” And a woman—proud, strong, “again a rebel, [who] determines she will be crowned once again.”