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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Malone

By Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)

WHILE, in the middle of the seventeenth century, that portion of North America which now comprises the United States was unexplored wilderness, the empire of Spain held a brilliant court in the city of the Montezumas. Scholars, artists, and philosophers, boasting the best blood of proud Castilian races, were gathered in the New World about the persons who represented the Crown and its authority. Great must have been the surprise of the learned and able in the imperial city of Madrid, when in 1689, in that city, Maria Luisa, Countess of Parades, wife of the viceroy of Mexico, caused to be published a volume of poems by a native of the wonderful country in which Cortez and his daring followers had set up the triumphant standard of Spain. Still greater was the wonder when upon reading, it was found that these poems of “La Monja de Mexico” (The Mexican Nun) were brilliant enough to compare with any from the pen of the most admired and distinguished authors of the home land. So eagerly was the book read, and so passionately admired, that in three years it went through as many editions, and gained for the cloistered writer the unanimous tribute of the title “La Decima Musa” (The Tenth Muse). Her world called her simply “The Mexican Nun”; but subsequent generations have added to that title the name of “Immortal honor of her sex and native land.”

The distinguished Father Luis Morales, abbot of the monastery of San Joaquin in Madrid, who approved the printing of the book, said of it, “No greater treasure has been wafted by happy breezes from the Indies into Spain.”

The person whose humble state of life was thus glorified bore the name in her convent of Sister Juana Yñez de la Cruz; and was born on the 12th of November 1651, at a country place about forty miles from the City of Mexico, called San Miguel de Nepanthla. Her parents were Don Manuel Asbaje, a gentleman of good rank belonging to the city of Vegara, and Doña Isabel Ramirez de Santillana, a native of the city of Ayacapixtla. As a child the gift of poetry approved itself in this Mexican country girl as early as her eighth year, when it is said she accomplished the marvelous task of writing a dramatic eulogy or “Auto” in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. So earnest was her disposition towards study, that having heard there was a school of sciences in the City of Mexico devoted exclusively to the education of boys, she earnestly begged her father to allow her to assume male attire, and go to Mexico for the purpose of entering this college. Her maternal grandmother, a resident of the City of Mexico, learning of the child’s impatience for larger opportunities of study than were afforded by her father’s house, obtained permission to take the little one under her own roof and there superintend her education. Finding in her grandmother’s house a great store of books, the future poetess eagerly, but with a discrimination beyond the ordinary, absorbed a vast amount of knowledge. Under the direction of Master Olivas, a teacher of Latin grammar, she easily and quickly acquired a knowledge of classical authors, and became proficient as a writer of prose and verse in the speech of Virgil.

The fame of this talented girl soon came to the ears of the viceroy, and caused his lady, the Marquesa de Macera, to bestow upon the young poetess a position in the palace as one of the ladies of honor. While occupying this distinguished place, Juana Yñez gave so great evidence of the pre-eminence of her mental power, and was withal so gentle and attractive, that many noble and brilliant offers of marriage were laid at her feet.

In spite of the great praise and flattering hopes of social rank poured daily down before her, she determined to take up a religious life. In this she was encouraged by the direction and advice of Father Antonio Nuñez, a very learned Jesuit, who was at that time the confessor of the viceroy. Doña Juana at first assumed the habit of the barefooted Carmelites in the convent of San José, of the City of Mexico; but shortly realizing that the rigor of their rule was too great for her, and acting upon the advice of her physician, she removed to the house of the Jeromite nuns, where she made her solemn profession before the end of her eighteenth year. For twenty-seven years she remained in this house, devoted to the study of the Scriptures and sacred theology, as well as mathematics, history, and poetry. Her collected works, the best edition of which was published in Madrid in the year 1725, in three quarto volumes, show that the power of her Muse extended to all pleasing and soul-elevating topics, whether connected with religion or with social life. Many of her light and humorous sonnets to her private friends reveal the very soul of wit. Her charming comedy on the obligations of hospitality displays a delicate and masterful knowledge of the laws of love and family, as well as of the somewhat severe and complicated rules by which the Spanish comedy of the ‘Cloak and Sword’ was constructed. So perfect is this social comedy, that it causes one to wonder how this secluded Mexican nun could have acquired a knowledge of the practical needs of the stage as complete as any that illuminated the work of Calderón or of Lope de Vega.

The greatest triumph of her genius, however, is the Corpus Christi play entitled ‘The Divine Narcissus’; in which, by a simple yet wonderful allegory, she weaves the fable of the pagan lover into a marvelous broidery of the life and passion of the Christ. The daring of the thought and its treatment is Shakespearean in convincing mastery.

But it was not in her impassioned verse alone that the genius of this remarkable woman found expression. She was an artist in paint as well, and her own exquisitely refined features have been preserved for us by her own hand. The vignette which is here reproduced is after a life-size copy in oil of the portrait that she painted of herself. Beneath it is a Spanish inscription of direct and simple eloquence:—“Faithful copy of another which she herself made and painted with her own hand. The Rev. Mother Juana Yñez de la Cruz, Phœnix of America, glorious perfection of her sex, honor of the nation of the New World, and subject of the admiration and praises of the Old.”

This copy was purchased by Dr. Robert H. Lamborn, and placed in his collection of Mexican colonial works of art in Memorial Hall, Philadelphia.

The quiet of the convent walks did not save the poetess from the noise of envy and detraction. Many rude assaults were made upon her name and fame; but her unassuming modesty, her virtue, and her generous and unselfish devotion, drew finally even those who most maligned her into the ranks of her true friends. It was about two years before her death, and while her name and the music of her song were being chanted in a chorus of the highest praise, that she at once and willingly gave up all efforts toward any of the world’s works, and under the care of her old confessor, Father Nuñez, devoted herself and her remaining years to the study and hope of eternity. Of this time of her life Father Nuñez said, “She seemed to long for Heaven as the white dove longs for its nest.”

The plague broke out in the City of Mexico in the early spring of 1695; and amongst the devoted women of God who went to the care of the sick and dying was Sister Juana Yñez. One day she came back to her cell with the dread infection heavy upon her; and on the 17th of April of this year, having been forty-four years and five months amongst men, her soul departed. Her death was bemoaned by the people of two continents, and her obsequies were attended with almost royal honors.