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 August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

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

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Amount the town of Rolfe, Iowa, will pay anyone who builds a home there:

$1,200

Ancient Egyptians worshiped some dwarves as gods.

In Italy, a judge ordered that a man who paid for sex with a 15-year-old girl must buy her 30 feminist-themed books, including The Diary of Anne Frank and the poems of Emily Dickinson.

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