Here is a sonnet from the last great poet of the Spanish literary and political golden age, Sor Juana Ines del la Cruz, living and writing in Mexico in the second half of the seventeenth century, where she was successively a prominent courtier and a nun. It is entitled ” A la esperanza”, to hope.
Verde embeleso de la vida humana
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
A la esperanza, escrito en uno de sus retratos
Verde embeleso de la vida humana,
loca esperanza, frenesí dorado,
sueño de los despiertos intrincado,
como de sueños, de tesoros vana;
alma del mundo, senectud lozana,
decrépito verdor imaginado,
el hoy de los dichosos esperado
y de los desdichados el mañana:
sigan tu sombra en busca de tu día
los que, con verdes vidrios por anteojos,
todo lo ven pintado a su deseo:
que yo, más cuerda en la fortuna mía,
tengo en entrambas manos ambos ojos
y solamente lo que toco veo.
We usually think of hope as positive, an attitude we should strive to maintain, even in the face of adversity. Here the poet reveals that hope is an illusion, vain and without connection to reality. The poet knows better – she trusts only in the tangible, she sees only what she can touch. Hope is portrayed as a departure from reality, but at the end of the day, it is only concrete reality which counts. This is the final payoff in the poem, revealed in the last three lines, leaving the reader grounded in the poem’s message.
The poem has some great examples of baroque wordplay “sueno de los despiertos”, “el hoy de los dichosos esperado/ y de los desdichados la manana”. It is fun to appreciate how this works to create sense out of incongruity and to keep the reader alert to the poets skill at using words creatively.
Sor Juana’s life is fascinating, and I recommend the biography written a few years ago by the modern Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, entitled “Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe”, not only is it extremely enlightening about the age, about the position of women, the role of religion, social norms, but it is also an ultimately tragic portrait of a multi-faceted and talented woman.