Reading Beauty (Luis de Gongóra and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz)

Reading Beauty (Luis de Gongóra and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz) June 7, 2018

It’s a humid day here in Connecticut, warmer than expected. Weeks of frequent rain have left everything green and overgrown. Natural beauty is hard to compete with. Growing up in a working class city not too far from Concord, MA, I grew up reading Emerson’s essays alongside Dickinson and William Cullen Bryant, writers who all turned to nature To refresh their spirit and to know God. Not the God of strict doctrinaire thinking, but a transcendent spirit. For many American and British thinkers in the nineteenth century, nature was a new church. The church of the natural world, however, has no strict rules, no lengthy lectures or sermons.

But an earlier generation of writers understood, as we do now, that the natural world is just as impermanent and fragile as our own lives. Luis de Gongóra (1561-1627) knew this well. He wrote one of the most famous sonnets ever written in Spanish in 1582. This sonnet (“Mientras por competir con tu cabello”) is about a woman’s impressive beauty, so beautiful that she is favored above the beauties of the natural world. However, as the poem comes to a close, Gongóra reminds her that the natural world too will fade:

“Se vuelva, mas tú y ello juntamente

en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada”

And you and they [the beauty of nature] together will turn back to earth, to smoke, to dust, to shadow, to nothing.


A rather chilling reminder that the world around us, like our bodies, will come undone. But before we congratulate Gongóra too much for his perspective, another Hispanic poet reworks his sonnet to have an even more sophisticated point, free of the seductive misogyny of this poem. Gongóra, after all, is lecturing someone else on her vanity. Renaissance writers wrote poems like these usually to seduce. If the woman is aware that her beauty will fade, perhaps she will feel the need to celebrate her beauty and somehow love the poet. Pierre de Ronsard wrote a famous like that in the sixteenth century which would later inspire W.B. Yeats to write “When You are Old.” Gongóra does not make a seductive pitch in this poem. Still, he lectures another rather than lecture himself.

Leave it to Mexican genius, nun, and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) to one-up the great poet of cleverness, Gongóra. If you have ever held a 200 peso note, you have already seen her face. She’s on there by her birth name, Juana de Asbaje (her full name was Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramirez de Santillana). She wrote a poem in which she reacts to a portrait of herself. Unlike Gongóra, Sor Juana keeps her eye on her own body and vanity. She calls the portrait “un vano artificio del cuidado” (a vain artifice of care). She believes that her body, represented in the portrait, is transient and ready to fall into death and obscurity. The ending lines are gorgeous:

”…y, bien mirado,

es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.”

And, well looked at, it is a corpse, it’s dust, it’s shadow, it’s nothing. If you look back at the Gongóra poem, you’ll see she keeps “dust,” “shadow,” and “nothing,” but adds “corpse.” Sor Juana knows that beauty is never permanent. Beauty is only understood, “well looked at” to use Sor Juana’s term, when it is understood in the fullness of its destiny and fragility.









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