The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz


The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz examines the role of occasional verse in the works of the celebrated colonial Mexican nun. The poems that Sor Juana wrote for special occasions (birthdays, funerals, religious feasts, coronations, and the like) have been considered inconsequential by literary historians; but from a socio-historical perspective, George Antony Thomas argues they hold a particular interest for scholars of colonial Latin American literature. For Thomas, these compositions establish a particular set of rhetorical strategies, which he labels the author's 'political aesthetics.' He demonstrates how this body of the famous nun's writings, previously overlooked by scholars, sheds new light on Sor Juana's interactions with individuals in colonial society and throughout the Spanish Empire.


In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

—Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day”

mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.

—Carol Ann Duffy, “Last Post”

On July 5, 1684, the citizens of colonial Mexico City celebrated the birthday of a notable citizen: a toddler named José María Francisco de la Cerda. Since his illustrious parents had already suffered the loss of two newborn sons, they must have been overjoyed and organized a great celebration. The festivities would have been grand not only because José had reached his first birthday, but also because he was the sole progeny of the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain. To commemorate this special occasion, the renowned colonial Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz composed a poem that was sent to the Viceregal Palace. The romance, or ballad, affirmed the celebration of life but unexpectedly conjured the specter of death. Incredibly, Sor Juana followed her birthday wishes for the viceroy’s son with a petition to stop the execution of a convict. Her early modern birthday card is fascinating both for its innovative literary structure and its radical political content. It is a text that should be valued as a work of literature and as a historical document, but one that has largely been ignored by historians and literary critics alike. Clearly the poet had taken advantage of the occasion, in this case a child’s birthday, in order to create a political platform for herself. This remarkable poem, in which an occasion was transformed into a conduit for speaking directly to the viceroy about an important state matter, was the inspiration for the present study. The text sparked a desire to find similar works in the Obras completas of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and to begin an inquiry into the political aesthetics of her occasional verse.

Like the birthday poem, much of the poetry written by Sor Juana falls into the category of poesía de ocasión, or occasional poetry, an often overlooked but central mode of literary production in this celebrated writer’s oeuvre. During the colonial . . .

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