A nice combination of poetry and visual art today as we can read a poem by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz about a painting of her, while at the same time looking at an image of that painting, seeing what she saw over 300 years ago. Her reaction to the portrait is personal and philosophical – the painting is a distortion of the truth, it does not reflect what she looks like, or feels that she looks like. Above all, by showing her in the prime of life, as an attractive woman, it hides the fact that her beauty will fade, time will take its toll on her appearance and the inevitable approach of death is ignored. In a sense, her poem is the addition of a memento mori feature lacking in the painting, even though it was quite common at this time for portraits of the rich and famous to have such a feature, like a skull on the table, or something like that.
A SU RETRATO
Este, que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores
es cauteloso engaño del sentido:
éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores,
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,
es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado:
es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.
—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Fully half the lines of this sonnet begin with “es”, it is, enumerating the things about the portrait which are deceiving or illusionary. None of them praise the artist or the quality of the work, all draw attention to the vanity of the intent and the gap between what is on the canvas and the reality experienced by the poet herself.
After setting out in the first four lines the fundamentally deceiving nature of the portrait, the rest of the poem goes through the ways in which it denies or hides the passage of time and the effects of aging. The final six lines, all beginning with “es” to build a cumulative reinforcement of the message culminate in a final line which is a tribute to the final line of Gongora’s famous sonnet, “mientras por competir con tu cabello”. Compare Gongora, “En tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada”, with Sor Juana, “es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.”
The Poetry Dude