- The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by George Antony Thomas
Research on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51–1695) continues to increase and produce innovative and provocative studies that uncover elements previously ignored. George Antony Thomas has written one of these studies. In The Politics and Poetics of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Thomas analyzes an aspect of Sor Juana’s work that others have only touched on when searching for individual instances in which Sor Juana dedicated her writings to others–principally to New-Spanish vicereines. Thomas goes far beyond regularly cited verses and focuses on Sor Juana’s “occasional works” that include epithalamia or celebratory wedding poems, epitaphs to commemorate deaths, triumphal arches, epinicia or triumphal odes, poems that accompany gifts, and birthday poems. Thomas depicts Sor Juana as a writer who took advantage of various special occasions on which she attempted to present her ideas, to effect change in both New-Spanish and Spanish societies, and to promote her thriving literary career.
Thomas clearly grasps the “occasional mode” and evaluates these texts from an interdisciplinary perspective. He not only incorporates a traditional historical approach but also integrates issues of gender and marginalization as well as enhanced literary discursive analyses of classical forms. In the first chapter he gives a thorough historical background of the stages through which nuns passed as they took their final sacred vows to become brides of Christ. His mention of the “monja coronada” or “crowned nun” paintings—a type of wedding portrait painted of the nuns on their profession or deathbed—emphasizes the cultural importance of the process. Additionally, he well defines and contextualizes the genre of the epithalamium as a highly employed form of occasional poetry. He describes it even further [End Page 693] within the confines of the convent and portrays Sor Juana, like other early-modern women, as a “wedding preacher” who could become a “theologian in verse.” Subsequently, Thomas compares Sor Juana with other Iberian nuns who contribute to this poetic form: Sor Cecilia de Nacimiento (1570–1646), Sor Violante do Céu (1601–93), Doña Ana Francisca Abarca de Bolea (1623–?), and Sor Marcela de San Félix (1605–87).
Chapter 2 concentrates on the significance of the classical Roman poet Horace to Sor Juana’s poetry written for imperial occasions such as epitaphs, epinicia, and triumphal arches. Sor Juana is the only woman known to design such an arch in colonial history, and Thomas cleverly adds to and evaluates scholarship that highlights her as a proponent of the importance of New Spain and the Americas as opposed to a mere puppet who admires the Spanish metropolis. In chapter 3 Thomas continues to underscore Horace’s influence and devotes much time to Sor Juana’s literary “self-fashioning” or self-promotion. He establishes her link to other women writers and suggests her efforts to develop a community of women scholars. Chapter 4 observes how Sor Juana used birthday verses and poems that accompanied gifts to viceroys and their wives to express her opinions on political matters. She not only focused on kings or viceroys but also addressed queens and vicereines as part of the ruling power in the public sphere instead of in domestic scenarios alone. Thomas concludes with an examination of how the “political aesthetics” in Sor Juana’s occasional works recur in her most read prose composition, the Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz.
Thomas’s book is a welcome, thought-provoking, and well-researched addition to Sor Juana studies, and it provides an unprecedented interpretation of Sor Juana’s occasional writings that helps readers better understand her complete works and those of other early-modern women writers.