Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Tenth Muses Lately Sprung Up in the Americas: The Borders of the Female Subject in Sor Juana's First Dream and Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations"

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Tenth Muses Lately Sprung Up in the Americas: The Borders of the Female Subject in Sor Juana's First Dream and Anne Bradstreet's "Contemplations"

Article excerpt

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695) invite comparison: they were two of the first published poets in the European colonies, they both struggled with religious faith, they both endured belittling criticism from the male authorities surrounding them, they were both dubbed "The Tenth Muse" by their respective editors. Indeed, a few critics refer in passing to such coincidences (Tavard 1, Peden 12), but only a few studies attempt to delve further into the parallels between the two poets (Aldridge, Arenal, Jed). [1] The relative scarcity of comparative criticism is, on one level, unsurprising, since, outside of their gender and their era, the two writers are difficult to compare. Sor Juana writes in Spanish, Bradstreet in English; Sor Juana is deeply influenced by the elaborate, lavish, convoluted style of Spanish baroque poetry, Bradstreet, by the even meters, regular forms, and direct language of the English Renaissance. The biographical differences between the two women are as striking as the similarities. Sor Juana, a Catholic nun closely affiliated with the New Spain court, lived and wrote in Mexico City, a metropolis of as many as four hundred thousand people. Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan mother and wife, lived and wrote in several small frontier towns of a colony whose largest city, Boston, contained only about seven thousand people at the time of Bradstreet's death (Leonard 159, 165).

Despite the wide separation in space and culture, however, Sor Juana and Bradstreet do share common projects. As Electra Arenal points out in her comparison of the two poets, "Both women defended the intelligence, reason, art, and power of their sex" ("This life within me" 158), a defense that appears in thematic as well as formal and prosodic elements of their writings. They also, in their respective poems Primero Sueno (First Dream) and "Contemplations' undertake intellectual projects remarkable for female writers--whether continental or colonial--of their age. [2] These two lengthy epistemological poems explore the limits of nature, of knowledge, and of God. In other words, the two poets explore the boundaries of the self. Living within cultures that allowed women little opportunity to define themselves and that also allowed church members limited latitude for spiritual originality, the verbal construction of world and self was a daring act. The two poets directly confront the margins of female and religi ous identity.

This essay puts Primero Sueno and "Contemplations" in conversation, exploring the respective means by which Sor Juana and Anne Bradstreet rewrite myth, theology, and epistemology to create a poetic world in which women can play an authoritative role. While the two writers depend on different traditions and genres, they often resort to similar tactics. In "A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana's Dream," Georgina Sabat-Rivers details how Sor Juana uses mythological characters in ways that bring into relief gender inequities. Bradstreet similarly reinvents mythological and biblical figures in a way that presents empowered females in a positive light. The protagonists of both poems, the "I's" that record the action, like the female characters, do not submit compliantly to forces of authority. Strains of resistance also appear in Sor Juana's and Bradstreet's struggles with the relationship between faith and reason, struggles which often appear as a response to the repression of women's intelligence. Despite the diffe rences in their cultural backgrounds, both writers have been strongly influenced by a Thomistic/Aristotelean epistemology that strictly delimits the relationship between human knowledge and faith in the divine. In their representations of world and Word, however, Sor Juana and Bradstreet question conventional theological wisdom. This questioning is most evident in the sequence of both poems: the cyclical patterns of Primero Sue no are open-ended and inconclusive; the truncated ending of "Contemplations" is unconvincing. …

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