No Comment, Quotation — March 15, 2009, 12:41 pm

Sor Juana’s Rose

roses

En que da moral censura a una rosa,
y en ella a sus semejantes

Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura;
amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo sér unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura:

¡cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida

de tu caduco sér das mustias señas,
con que con docta muerte y necia vida,
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas.

In which she warns a rose,
and provides thereby a moral to those like it

Divine rose, who are cultivated in kindness,
with your fragrant subtleness,
magisterial with your purpled beauty,
a snowy demonstration of pulchritude
twin of human architecture,
example of a vain gentility,
in whom are united by nature,
the happy cradle and the sad sepulchre

What haughtiness in your pomp, what pride,
and presumption, as you scorn your mortal fate
and later are distressed and hide

as dying you give signs of decrepitude
with which, by your wise death and foolish life,
in life you deceive and in death you teach!

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, En que da moral censura a una rosa (ca. 1660) in Fama, y obras postumas (1700) (S.H. transl.)


Sometimes a rose is just a rose, but other times the rose may be a complex metaphor, with a meaning for each of its hundred petals. No doubt Sor Juana’s rose is a centifolia of meaning. And just what is meant by this rose is still a matter of some controversy. Is her rose a symbol of human vanity, particularly of the female, regaled by her own beauty and not conscious that it is but a fleeting gift? That image fits easily into a central theme of the baroque era, and it is one that emerges credibly from the pen of a cloistered woman—without a doubt the greatest female poet of the Americas in the seventeenth century. But I’m skeptical of that interpretation. It’s too simple, perhaps. And Sor Juana is more complex and nuanced than that. Much of what she writes is a complaint against the treatment of women—a complaint against her own life which was robbed of richness and experience by the pettiness of social convention. The rose was also, in the language of courtly romance that still furnishes so much of the backdrop to the writers of the Spanish Golden Age, a symbol of the eternal feminine and even an image of the sexual force itself. It speaks of a power that wells in the human form but which also fails and is lost with time, and it is easy to imagine Sor Juana concerned with this wasting aspect of her own humanity. Vanity? Perhaps. But also wasted human potential. A sense of loss from a life spent in involuntary segregation, deprived of the interaction which in so many ways leads to fruit. The rose may fade and its petals fly to the winds, but a rose hip may yet be left behind.

Her rose has another unusual aspect, namely, its service as an educational tool. We humans are to learn a lesson at its expense: namely that the beauty that life affords, and its creative energy, are transitory gifts—to be seized and put to good use, for they soon will be lost. Sor Juana was a woman of great erudition. By tradition, the viceroy assembled a competition in which she confronted the learned scholars of the University of Mexico, but none could best her. In this poem she reflects the predispositions of a divine or a scholar, but she urges us to learn from the life that flourishes about us and not to limit our learning to books.


Listen to Juan Arañés’s chaconne A la vida bona, taken from the Libro segundo de tonos y villancicos (1624)–a staple of Iberro-American music from the age of Sor Juana, it has been tied historically to this poem. It provides the underpinnings for a secular, as opposed to a religious, understanding of the rose. The first stanza reads: Un sarao de la chacona/se hizo el mes des las rosas/huvo millares de cosas/y la fama lo pregona/a la vida bona, vida vámanos a chacona – One evening in the month of roses/a dancing party was held/it afforded a thousand pleasures,/as was famed both far and wide/here’s to the good life,/my sweet, let’s dance the chaconne. It is performed here by Hespèrion XX, Montserrat Figueras (Soprano), Maria Arrubarrena (Soprano), Carlos Mena (Countertenor), Francesc Garrigosa (Tenor) and Daniel Carnovich (Bass) under the direction of Jordi Savall.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, a story by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Chances that a Republican man believes that “poor people have hard lives”:

1 in 4

A school in South Korea was planning to deploy a robot to protect students from unwanted seductions.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today