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Sor Juana’s Rose

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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.

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