Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was so much more than a lesbian love poet.
- She was an incomparable member of the intelligentsia of early 18th century Mexico.
- She held a salon at her convent, attracting writers and philosophers from all over the western world.
- She was a child prodigy with words and Catholic liturgy.
- She built the most extensive library in all of Mexico while she was a nun.
- She wrote plays, commentaries, poems and all manner of communication.
- She fought relentlessly for the right of women to learn, to study.
She was, in short, an incredibly intelligent, gutsy, perceptive woman who chose the nunnery as her place of residence. And by all images I could locate, she was also very beautiful.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, has just premiered a new play about Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, called “The Tenth Muse”. I was so pleased to have seen that play . (Note: Socrates had called Sappho “the tenth muse” since Sappho was so very gifted, and the term has become associated with brilliant women poets ever since. Sor Juana Ines deserves that title, without question.)
“The Tenth Muse” only hinted lightly on the issue of women’s love in the convent, and for good reason. Sor Juana Ines was such an incredibly accomplished, amazing, creative person that there is no way they could have explored every aspect of her life.
Many critics question the lesbian aspect of Sor Juana Inez’s life, noting that in the final analysis it really doesn’t matter, i.e., she was simply brilliant, no matter what. Yes, that is true. She was simply brilliant, no matter what.
And she was also in love with another woman.
Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz’s Love for Another Woman
Because Sor Juana Inez was such an outspoken critic of women’s educations, and even critical of some Church mores, she needed the protection of influential political leaders. She found that protection for a time with the Marquis de la Laguna, and his wife Maria Luisa, Countess de Paredes.
It is Maria Luisa who Sor Juana Inez comes to love, very deeply. Whether or not a physical lesbian relationship existed is not clear. But the love is definitely there, so real that Sor Juana Inez simply cannot hide it. In her poetry at that time, Sor Juana Inez refers to a “Phyllis”, widely accepted as reference to Maria Luisa. Here is an excerpt from that very dramatic poem:
But, Phyllis, why go on?
For yourself alone I love you.
Considering your merits,
what more is there to say?
That you’re a woman far away
is no hindrance to my love:
for the soul, as you well know,
distance and sex don’t count
Can you wonder my love sought you out?
Why need I stress that I’m true,
when every one of your features
betokens my enslavement?
There is another poem, called “My Lady”, which is an even bolder statement of Sor Juana Inez’s love for her lady. In this poem, Maria Luisa has apparently questioned the love of Sor Juana Inez because Sor Juana Inez had not been vocal enough. So this is a pure unabashed statement of love. A brief excerpt:
I love you with so much passion,
neither rudeness nor neglect
can explain why I tied my tongue,
yet left my heart unchecked.
The matter for me was simple;
love for you was so strong,
I could see you in my soul
and talk to you all day long.
How unwisely my ardent love,
which your glorious sun inflamed,
sought to feed upon your brightness,
though the risk of your fire was plain!
Let my love be ever doomed
if guilty in its intent,
for loving you is a crime
of which I will never repent.
The Passions of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz
Had love of a woman been Sor Juana Inez’s only issue at the convent, life would have been difficult enough. But she was a veritable lightening rod of dissent in many areas. And it was her unrelenting defense of women’s right to education that was her ultimate downfall.
This illegitimate child, this prodigy, this genius had the audacity to challenge the Church’s position on women’s education. Her “Respuesta” is a maverick work outlining the logical sense of women’s education more than 200 years before Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” And it was “Respuesta” that silenced her pen. With threats from the Inquisition, Sor Juana Inez wrote no more.
And only two years after her pen was silenced, Sor Juana Inez died, caring for the poor during an epidemic.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz On Stage
The play “The Tenth Muse” proposed that it was the Inquisition that destroyed the bulk of her writings, and this may well be the case. Some of her writings did survive, and they are simply brilliant.
There was another version of the life of Sor Juana presented in the opera With Blood, With Ink, by composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask, which premiered at the Fort Worth Opera in April 2014.
In the opera, the older Sor Juana is on her death bed, with visions of her life drifting before her. The Inquisition forces her to sign a blood oath, and ultimately the older Sor Juana embraces her younger self with the words, ‘Enough of suffering, my love. Enough.’ Reconciled at last, Sor Juana dies.
I have not seen the opera, but it sounds absolutely wonderful. If you have been so fortunate as to have seen it, please jot a note below and tell us about it.
And a play titled “Masks of Sor Juana” opened in Dallas in April 2014. This presents many different interpretations of Sor Juana’s life (and there are many), and does so brilliantly. Here is a review of that presentation.
It is amazing how one woman has so captured our imaginations. And now, so long after her death. We have to wonder what it was that simply made her so captivating for so long, and why we can only talk about her now. At any rate, I am personally thrilled that her life and works have finally come to light in the English speaking world.
Sor Juana in Film
In 1990 a new film was released about Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, titled “I, the Worst of All”. It was filmed in Argentina and was based on a biography by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. It is in Spanish, but there is a version with English subtitles. The Boston Globe described the film as “engrossing, enriching, and elegant….”
As I write this in 2014, there is another film being planned based on a later version of her life.
Whether you speak Spanish or not, this is a Muse worth studying. This is a lesbian poet who was indeed so much more.