1750: Falsos silogismos de colores


The Mexican feminist, philosopher, and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651 – 1695) wrote in Latin, Spanish, and Nahuatl. While a nun, she wrote prose, poetry, and drama on love, the status of women, and religion. When her writing was condemned by the Bishop of Puebla in 1694, she was forced to sell her library and focus exclusively on charity towards the poor. She died the following year.

This poem is one of her most famous:

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.

In 1950, Samuel Beckett translated an entire anthology of Mexican poetry compiled by Octavio Paz — despite the fact that his Spanish was inadequate to the task. He needed the money, though, and split the payment with a fluent friend for furnishing him with literal translations of the works, which he then fashioned into poetry: here is his version of Sor Juana’s sonnet:

To Her Portrait

This coloured counterfeit that thou beholdest,
vainglorious with excellencies of art,
is, in fallacious syllogisms of colour,
nought but a cunning dupery of sense;
this in which flattery has undertaken
to extenuate the hideousness of years,
and, vanquishing the outrages of time,
to triumph o’er oblivion and old age,
is an empty artifice of care,
is a fragile flower in the wind,
is a paltry sanctuary from fate,
is a foolish sorry labour lost,
is conquest doomed to perish and, well taken,
is corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.

Paz has written a wonderful biography of Sor Juana.

Miguel Cabrera: Portrait of Sor Juana (c. 1750)

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