The Tenth Muse
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The Tenth Muse
One of the worst punishments one may have to endure in life is to be unable to quench the constant thirst for knowledge and to find the desire to do so to be forbidden in the eyes of society. This is what Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez had to face throughout her life. She was born in the town of San Miguel de Nepantla and lived from 1648 to 1695. While she is better known as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, in the literary world she is referred to as "The Tenth Muse." She lived in the Colonial Period in Mexico (1492-c.1800), a time when women weren't allowed to pursue an education or to be considered independent thinkers.
In Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Gerard Flynn points out her desire, thirst, and her calling to God at a young age: "She had learned to read when she was three years old . . . . when she was eight years old she wrote a dramatic poem to the Eucharist" (14). Because of Sor Juana's astonishing skills, her mother sent her twelve-year-old daughter to Mexico City with her uncles. As a result of her intellectual ability, the viceregals took her under their protection when she was sixteen. In A Sor Juana Anthology, Alan S. Trueblood writes that Sor Juana, at the age of twenty, "entered the Convent of Santa Paula of the Hieronymite order, where she was to remain cloistered the rest of her life" (5) in order to seclude herself from the distracting and conflictive life of the viceregal court. Trueblood explains that Sor Juana opted for this path because she was an "exceptional woman who had the temerity to value cultivation of her mind above all else, including marriage" (5). She wrote an extensive array of lyric poetry, some "centering on her connections with the viceregal court, love poetry, poetry marked personal in tone rooted in her individual situation, light verse, [and] religious lyrics"(viii).
When I was in the third grade, I read "You Men" by Sor Juana. At the time, I did not know much about her. Because of the sophisticated language and complexity of the poem, I wasn't able to understand it. In college, I came across one of its translations and the seed of curiosity germinated in me. I didn't choose to write about her because she is Mexican as I am, but for other reasons. First, I admire the timelessness of her thoughts as presented in the poem "You Men." Second, I think highly of her because of the bravery and determination she constantly demonstrated by sharing her perspectives in a society where intelligent and capable women like her were considered unacceptable. Third, I identify with the constant suffering she went through in order to obtain an education; she was a woman living in a society controlled by men, and I am an immigrant caught in the very long process of becoming a U.S. resident. We have each been kept from living up to our full potential.
Because of the unfairness in how knowledge was imparted, and the diminished value women were assigned, Sor Juana wrote "You Men." In this poem, she criticizes the Machismo of the society of her time and makes fun of the hypocrisy of men who condemn prostitutes but use their services. She calls men "silly" for blaming womankind for the faults men are responsible for. Sor Juana uses antithesis to make note of the faults men assign to women's behavior. After winning their trust and breaking their good name, "[men] still expect [women] to behave- / [they,] that coaxed her into shame" (lines 7-8). Men expect women to be pure, but lure them into sin. They hold womankind responsible because it is "weak" when actually men's persistency is to blame. Because of this, Sor Juana compares man to a child who "makes a bogeyman, / and then recoils in fear and cries" (lines 15-16). In another example of antithesis, Sor Juana alludes to Thais, a famous prostitute of her time, and Lucretia, an honest and virtuous woman. She says that men pursue Thais when they are courting, but want a "Lucretia once [they] fall [for them]" (line 20). She states that men lack common sense for not accepting responsibility for their actions: "[they] cloud the mirror, / then complain that it's not clear?" (lines 23-24). Sor Juana expresses how men destroy women's purity and virtue when they make women sin.
Then she declares that nothing can satisfy men. "They whimper if [woman] turned away / [they] sneer if [woman] gratified [them]" (line 27-28). The one who takes care of her honor is "ungrateful" while the one who succumbs is called "lewd." In the end, no woman can be seen in a positive way with such expectations; one is accused of cruelty and the other of looseness. "Who can understand man?" Sor Juana may think. If a woman returns a man's compliment, he disapproves of her, but if denied, he gets offended. Consequently, Sor Juana sees it as a blessing from God for a woman not to need a man. "God bless the woman who won't have you, / no matter how loud you complain" (lines 43-44).
Sor Juana speculates on who has the greatest guilt by using wordplay: "with the man who pleads out of baseness / or the woman debased by his plea?" (lines 51-52). Or who is more to blame, "the woman who sins for money / or the man who pays money to sin?" (lines 55-56). In her time, this was a bold question to ask society, since men ruled the church and society. She advises men to "either like them for what [they've] made them, / or make of them what [they] can like" (lines 59-60). If a man makes a woman sin, then he has to stay with her; but if a man wants a virtuous woman, then he should keep her that way until they get married.
Sor Juana writes that men are like spoiled children who are quick to judge and who don't know what they want. She wonders about the kind of women men want. If they are easy, they are called ladies of pleasure, and if not, they are accused of cruelty or lesbianism. Sor Juana compares men's arrogance to a mixture of the world, the flesh, and the devil, the worst enemies of the soul.
In the foreword of the book A Sor Juana Anthology, Octavio Paz comments that Sor Juana's "lot as a woman writer punished by haughty opinionated clerics reminds us of the fate that has befallen independent intellectuals of our own century in societies ruled by intolerant bureaucracies" (viii). Because of the timelessness of her thoughts, determination, and bravery and the fact that I identify with her in the battle to live up to one's full potential, I declare myself one of her admirers. I have become an admirer of "The Tenth Muse." Her mastery of poetry allowed her to discuss issues such as machismo and sexism, which are still prevalent in today's society. Even after three hundred years, we still retain some of these ideologies in some parts of the world. Through the use of antithesis, metaphor, and wordplay, Sor Juana conveys her view of society in her time. Sor Juana was strong enough to fight a constant battle against the macho society for several years. But in the end, she couldn't fight any more and had to sign in blood a clerical contract. In this contract, she agreed to renounce her pursuit of education. Three years later, she died administering aid to her fellow sisters affected by the plague.
Flynn, Gerard. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. ed. John P. Dyson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971. Print.
Ines de la Cruz, Sour Juana. "You Men" Trans. Alan S. Trueblood. Trueblood, 110-113.
Paz, Octavio. Foreword. A Sor Juana Anthology. By Alan S. Trueblood, Trans. Trueblood, vii-x.
Trueblood, Alan S. Trans. A Sor Juana Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.